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Tue, Mar 26, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Robotic vacuum by Matsushita about to undergo field testing

AP , TOKYO

Japan's electronics giant Matsushita Electric unveils its prototype of a vacuum-cleaning robot for household use yesterday. The unit is equiped with 50 sensors. Field testing is scheduled to begin in May.

PHOTO: AFP

The vacuum-cleaning robot from Japanese electronics manufacturer Matsushita Electric Industrial Co still crashes into chair legs and leaves lots of corners unswept.

But the unnamed test model, shown to reporters yesterday, is set to go on sale in three years with a price tag of Japanese yen 500,000 (US$3,800), the Osaka-based company said.

That's a target price counting on technological developments over the next few years that should bring down costs, officials said. The cordless machine, slightly bigger than a basketball, required Japanese yen 200 million (US$1.5 million) of research costs.

The company, which makes the Panasonic brand, has no export plans for the robot.

Matsushita said its autonomous-control technology can be used in other housekeeping robots that can work as a security guard or a caretaker for children or the elderly when equipped with features like cameras and mobile connections.

Eye-like lights glowing in the front and the back, the vacuuming robot comes with 50 sonic, infrared and other types of sensors so it turns before running into walls and avoids falling off steps.

Running for 55 minutes on a single battery charge, it figures out the size of a room by circling around it once and then travels horizontally and vertically to crisscross through the room to vacuum 92 percent of the floor space, Matsushita said.

It can't clean the edges because it's designed to stop 15cm before a wall and other obstacles that are at least 3cm wide.

"We have long been tackling the automation of domestic chores," said Matsushita director Yoshitaka Hayashi. "Robots will someday guard against fires and burglary in homes while people are asleep."

In a demonstration at Matsushita's Tokyo office, the vacuuming robot inched around a set similar to a living room, avoiding cabinets and furniture but left large portions near walls untouched. A person would have to use a regular vacuum cleaner to do a more thorough job, Matsushita said.

The robot took about nine minutes to finish the task, but officials acknowledged a person could do it in about five minutes. The robot also needs more work because it can get stuck under chairs and tables, they said.

The robot is designed to suck things up more powerfully and slow down when traveling over dusty areas.

Several of the robots will be tested in Japanese homes starting in May.

A number of Japanese companies are selling and developing robots for homes, although the offerings from Sony Corp, for example, are strictly for entertainment. Matsushita has developed vacuuming robots for industrial use, but they weren't designed to dodge obstacles.

Japan leads the world in robot use, a nation that accounts for nearly half of the new robots installed worldwide in 2000, according to the UN.

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