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Bye bai, I've got a robot
Every morning at 8 am, even as Abha Datta (50) chats with her husband over chai and newspapers, her new household help sets out to clean the drawing room and lobby of their Nizamuddin bungalow. She meticulously scours the floor till it sparkles, dives under the sofas and tables and does not spare a speck of dust on the ethnic carpet spread in the middle either. Datta does not need to even step outside her bedroom, let alone run behind this maid and coax her to "clean under this or behind that".
Meet Red Hawk, a disc-shaped robot of 17. 5 cm radius. The homemaker bought the robotic cleaner home a month ago and is glad there is no more "chik, chik" with the regular maid she employs. "My maid takes so many offs and whenever we were expecting guests I would have to keep following her around the house to ensure she cleaned properly. I don't have to make any effort with the new device, " says Datta. Her maid has also become savvy with using Red Hawk.
Datta is among a small but growing breed of city-dwellers who are buying such robo-maids to do household chores so they can focus on their work, enjoy me-time and escape the tantrums of their domestic help or even skip hiring one altogether.
Milagrow HumanTech, a Gurgaon-based company which sells Red Hawk and two other robotic cleaners, has sold around 100 pieces at retail outlets since the official launch of these products on February 1. It is also selling around 10 units daily online. Eureka Forbes, which introduced Robocleanz in the market around 18 months ago as the "maid that would never bunk work" - the company had launched with a Facebook teaser that said "Dus bahane meri bai de gayi (my maid gave ten excuses)" - has sold more than 2, 500 units. LG has also entered the segment with the launch of Hom-Bot, which cleans, patrols the house and feeds the pet.
Domestic robots may be new to India but they have been vacuuming homes, ironing clothes, cleaning swimming pools and mowing lawns in places like Japan, the US and Europe for close to a decade. Of course, none of these even come close to Rosie, the humanoid, multitasking robo-maid - with the voice of an aging cocktail waitress - from the popular toon show The Jetsons or Vicki, the cute child robot from the '80s television series Small Wonder who everyone had dreamt of owning by the turn of the century. Today, there are robots that can perform complex surgeries and disarm bombs but we are still quite far from the day when every home will have a robot housekeeper who, incidentally, may never match up to Ramu kaka. But the few types of domestic robots available are surely making life simpler by performing specific functions.
Only robotic cleaners and robotic pet carers have made a foray in India so far. But companies say this is just the beginning. "We hope to introduce robots that clean windows and pools by Diwali and also robots which can cook and give massages in the coming years, " says Saksham, assistant marketing manager at Milagrow, adding that they aim to replace humans serving humans with intelligent robots.
The robotic cleaners are almost completely autonomous. Once the owner has set up the device in a corner of the room, scheduled a clean-up time or day and chosen from options like wall-to-wall or spot cleaning, it gets to work without reminders or supervision, whether or not any one is home. Infrared sensors prevent the robot from bumping into walls or furniture and falling down stairs. If the robot's camera-eyes detect an excessively dirty area, a message is relayed to the brain and it cleans that area for a longer period of time. When it runs out of battery, the robo-cleaner automatically returns to the docking station and charges itself before resuming work. The settings also help owners set up virtual walls to prevent the bot from going to areas where cleaning is not desired.
While these devices dry-clean the floors and table surfaces, robotic moppers pretty much do a pochha of the house. Metalmate Robotics, a Ludhiana-based company, is selling Mint, which cleans the house with mops. "Many housewives in the 35 to 45 years age group have been buying it, " says marketing director Navrisham Kaur Grewal.
The technology may have come a long way from the days when vacuum cleaners were considered revolutionary but these robots, too, have limitations. They have to be picked up and placed on tables if one wants to clean the surfaces and they can't slide under slim stools or telephone consoles, for instance, as they don't fit between the narrow legs. The devices are also heavy on the pocket - Robocleanz is the cheapest at Rs 7, 990 and Hom-bot is the most expensive at Rs 43, 990.
But buyers consider it a worthy investment, especially considering they would spend the same amount on hiring help for a year or two maximum while the robot would serve for longer. "If we can spend Rs 25, 000 on a phone that is of hardly any use, why not spend on this device which really reduces one's headache, " says Datta, who shelled out Rs 16, 990 for Red Hawk.
Pet owners in Pune, Bangalore, Chandigarh and other metros have welcomed pet care robots with equal eagerness. Metalmate Robotics, which stocks eight types of pet carers, including automatic pet feeders, pet waterers, bark deterrents and a pet potty alarm which alerts the owner when his dog or cat wants to go outside, has sold many units.
The eight-day auto feeder is the most revolutionary of these products. It has eight compartments that can be filled with pet food or medicines and a digital timer so one can set the exact time when one wishes to feed the pet daily or multiple times a day. The feeder dispenses the food accordingly so the owner can go to work or on a week-long holiday without stressing about the pet going hungry.
Nacchhatar Sandhu and his wife Pawandeep - both work at Infosys in Pune - are planning to buy this innovative device so they can plan weekend getaways without their cat, Bibi. They have already been using an automatic pet bowl for two months. The bowl's lid opens up when it senses one-year-old Bibi approaching and closes five to ten seconds after she finishes her meal. "This ensures that no flies, bugs or dust enter Bibi's food, " says Sandhu.
The 28-year-old also plans to buy a robotic house mopper soon. "It is nice to have things taken care of automatically. It is also safer than having help around when one is out, " he says.
8. 6 MILLION
The world robot population by the end of 2008. The world population of high net worth individuals as of 2009 was also 8. 6 MILLION
4. 5 MILLION
The world robot population in 2006
2. 2 MILLION
The number of domestic and personal use robots sold in 2010
9. 8 MILLION
The estimated number of domestic robots that will be sold from 2011-2014
(source: World Robotics Study
conducted by the International
Federation of Robotics)
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