To quote an article that we wrote back in 2012, "Dyson has been working on a robot vacuum, for, like, ever." It's been a solid decade at the very least. The crazy part is that they already have a robotic vacuum: the DC06. In 2001 (one year before the very first Roomba), the $6,000 DC06 featured three onboard computers, 2,000 electronic components, 27 separate circuit boards, and 70 sensory devices. It was nuts. But James Dyson himself shut it down before a commercial release because of the cost (and weight), leaving us all wondering what they've been working on since then. We don't have an answer for you on that one, but it's gotta be a good sign that Dyson has just committed to investing $8 million in a robotics vision lab at Imperial College, London.
"My generation believed the world would be overrun by robots by the year 2014. We now have the mechanical and electronic capabilities, but robots still lack understanding—seeing and thinking in the way we do. Mastering this will make our lives easier and lead to previously unthinkable technologies." —James Dyson
My generation, meanwhile, believed the world would be overrun by robots by like the year 2000. We're way behind schedule, so anything that can help move that along a little bit is certainly welcome. Dyson's $8 million will go towards hiring 15 researchers and roboticists at Imperial, including some Dyson engineers, which we're hoping will mean an atypically aggressive approach towards commercialization. The focus will be vision: Andrew Davison will head the lab, with the goal of "[developing] systems that allow machines to both understand and perceive their surroundings—using vision to achieve it."
Vision is starting to become a problem of too much data and not enough intelligence, which is what J.D. means by robots lacking understanding. We have all kinds of super fancy cameras and sensors and whatnot, but no matter how many frames per second you're pumping out, or what sort of ludicrously high resolution or dynamic range they have, it's not going to do you any good at all unless you have software that can figure out what the heck your camera is looking at. Even simple object recognition is not yet simple to the extent that we can do it reliably in your typical home environment.
Most research labs tend to focus on technology demos, making very specific cutting-edge technology work under (usually) ideal circumstances. This is why we always get extra excited around here when we have the opportunity to post something about "real-world," where you have robots doing cool stuff in environments that are at least something like what you might in your house or outdoors or somewhere else that robots will need to be able to deal with to become useful. These aren't easy problems, but they're very important ones. Critical ones might not be too strong a word, since the ability to safely comprehend human environments is what's keeping robots from being exponentially more useful to us than they are now.
In addition to the research lab funding, Dyson is also spending $400 million to double the size of its UK research center by hiring 3,000 more engineers. I have no idea how many engineers it takes to redesign a robotic vacuum, but I feel like this should probably be enough.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.