Robot Head

Home Robot Buyer’s Guide

Introduction

Consumer, domestic and home robotics have undergone spectacular growth in the past few years as research and commercial development into the sector has reached a tipping point. The promise as well as dreams of robots in decades past have started to materialize, transforming into smart, autonomous or interactive devices that have practically limitless possibilities.

Many such devices may still be finding their footing towards getting ready for prime time, but the pace of development is skyrocketing and has shown enough promise to confirm that the benefits are real and the improvements are sustainable.

Nao Humanoid Robot
Image: SoftbankRobotics

In fact, it used to be that the penetration of bots in the home was either a shallow toy or entertainment gimmick (like the old sensation that was Furby or Robosapien) has transformed into a domination of autonomous or semi-autonomous utilities like smart vacuum cleaners, pool cleaners, window washers or smart lawn mowers that continue to improve at a brisk pace to this day with a lot of runway still available.

This domestic bot domination has given way to the entry of AI-enabled smart devices like family companions and the increasingly ubiquitous robotic personal assistants in smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo line of speakers with Alexa, the Google Home smart speaker, and Apple’s HomePod.

Yet even these are still the “functional” and function-oriented transactions. There are smart machines that have come out intended for human interaction– thereby making them feel even more like the robots in fiction or what had been dreamed of– in the form of companion robots or multipurpose units able to do what the smart speakers do but are more mobile or serve other primary purposes.

In fact, they are blending together as well as cross-pollinating now in the way that the disembodied AIs like Amazon’s Alexa has found its way beyond its Echo line of speakers and into other devices from different manufacturers such as smart vacuum cleaners, edutainment devices, and a lot more.

It is proof that as good as these devices have already become, their development even in the near future means fundamentally transformative improvements in their technology and the benefits, as well as the impact they will have in our lives in the next few years, maybe nothing short of colossal.

Table of Contents

The Buyer’s Guide: What to Look for in a Robot to Buy

Purchasing a robot is a personal or purpose-oriented decision– whether a stereotypical humanoid one with limbs or one that doesn’t look like it and in fact is in the form factor of a regular appliance or functional unit (such as a smart vacuum cleaner, thermostat or pool cleaner) with an “embedded” level of smarts that make it operate in a higher function or autonomy than previous generations of the category.

They also do not come cheap and vary in detail and durability.

The Consumer Robotics market reached $3.8 billion in sales worldwide in 2016 and is expected to hit $13.2 billion by the end of 2022, growing alongside the exploding trendline of the general robotics market.

So while each buy is specific, dependent on your purpose, objective or function, as well as your own interests and proclivities (and wallet), there are several, important and generally applicable points and lessons that can be applied as a guide to consider and apply to make your purchase better informed. And maybe even save you all the grief and tears from a bad or misguided acquisition.

Here’s a guide to make a better, and better-informed, purchase.

 

1) Your intended purpose. What is the real reason and use for what you wish to buy? (Entertainment, security, cleaning, etc.)

It is important to know what you’re buying for as well as its purpose in the present and future.

And it isn’t just price: For example, you don’t need an expensive humanoid robot that walks around with you and drives a car as well, when, if your purpose is to not have to drive yourself, just get a driverless car directly.

If you’re seeking a robot for entertainment or general amusement, buy one for the specific role to be played (like a musically-oriented bot, for example, if you’re a musician and wish to have it as a novel companion during shows; instead of a general one that at multiples of the price and not much use otherwise). If you want to have a multi-use one, get a more expensive unit with multiple categories of ability instead of multiple units with limited ones.

Another example: If security is important for you, it is best to have smart devices (like Internet of Things [IoT] security systems) for security than say, an entertainment bot that just happens to have a “patrol” mode, when in actuality that can provide for just a limited amount of surveillance for you. You don’t really need a humanoid robot that just happens to have “sentry” features when security is paramount and you should obtain a fully-fledged system with multiple cameras, sensors, and software dedicated to that purpose.

 

2) Your budget

It’s best to know the limits of your spending early on, lest you get enamored by the available devices you see you’ll forget and spend a lot more for something with a lot of features, most of which you don’t actually need but just got carried away.

For example, You should get the NAO bot if price is not an issue or is subsidized by your organization if the goal is, say, a deep robotics curriculum or a specific use; but there’s no reason to hock your car to afford a NAO when your intention is mostly to animate your bot by programming it when a Robotis Bioloid Premium is perfectly suited for it at less than an eighth of the price. The same is true for purchasing a $1,500 Roomba when most or all of what you need (including Alexa inside) is in an Ecovacs Deebot at less than a fifth of the price, for example.

This benefits you in many ways including (but not limited to) not to overspend (or underspend) on features for a product or a set of features that will have limited use and repeatability for you.

 

3) Your expertise level

If you’re a regular user who doesn’t really want to fuss with coding or the backend of your robo device, consider those that are built for easier use and that either don’t have programming features, or that do have them but that isn’t a (big) factor in price for their inclusion; the latter being especially useful if you think you might wish to dabble in a kit in the future, or a feature you really want is only available in such a model.

On the other hand, if you’re a seasoned hobbyist, researcher or professional, and wish to delve into the concept deep, then take stock of your current level of expertise, the future scope of tools and knowledge you’d like to have, and the time you’d wish to devote to it, and pick your particular brand and model accordingly, mostly based on those criteria, even if only using them as a guide.

That way, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing, where you’re going, and get there faster and better.

 

4) Think of the long-term.

How do you see the use of your intelligent machine years from now?

Consider the future prospects of the platforms, languages, tools, and resources of the robot you’re buying. These aren’t usually cheap, so picking them carefully from a complete perspective goes a long way towards going a long way.

 

5) Survey the operating environment of your machine, such as your desk, or your house (for vacuums, for example)

Even if you have settled on a specific make for your robotic unit, picking the model and version is important based on where it will be used.

Take one example: robot vacuum cleaners.

If you have a small home with flat tiled flooring. When you buy a robo-vacuum, then just about any unit would do. But if you have pets, with pet hairs getting tangled in brushes of various brands, then procuring one with specific pet-hair control features come front and center. If you have thicker carpets than usual, then getting one with stronger suctioning power and maneuverability specifically for carpets is the way to go.

On the other hand, if your floor area is large, or you have a large house with many rooms, then it behooves you to get not only a smart robotic vacuum that has a long battery life, but one that can also self-dock or self-recharge, finding its charging station autonomously and accurately, and recharging itself.

It’s also important for the unit to continue where it left off before it charged, without the owner needing to get involved.

As well, if your home has many rooms, you should get a unit that has a good interior mapping capability. Some devices can get stuck or get “lost” in the middle of a clean, like moving back and forth in the same place or returning to an already cleaned area several times, and require owner intervention to move it along again. This can get hairy if your home has many objects on the floor or many rooms and obstacles. Getting a unit to circumvent and traverse properly would, therefore, be high on your priority.

 

6) Do you want the specific features included or additional accessories (for example, a mobile app) to go with your unit?

The experience with most robotic devices is further enhanced by their companion accessories.

Take included apps. They can provide communication features, direction features, video viewing capabilities, direction controls, and many other possibilities. Some even have augmented reality (AR) features added (for entertainment bots) that significantly enhances even an already extensive range of features in the unit alone.

However, some people dislike this, including seeing this as just another distraction that requires having to learn or fiddle with the app and system, when all they want is just to get the unit running so they can play with it.

This is especially acute when those accessories or additional devices or apps are integral to the operation of the unit, and that the unit may not work or be hampered and limited in its functionality without them.

In other words, if you or someone at home lost a remote control or that you lost wifi connectivity or if someone else used the tablet that the app was on, and it limits your intelligent machine’s operation enough that you have to pair another device with it (download an app again, connect and register, then login, etc.), it gets very cumbersome very quickly.

It is generally a larger benefit to having these things than not, but if you’re the type to be the contrary, then you’ll be better off knowing this beforehand and be careful or find a suitable replacement instead.

 

7) Low cost or high quality?

Some devices have unique or patented functions that you’ll be hard-pressed to find comparable units (like Boston Dynamics’ animal-inspired Cheetah or Spot with a craning limb and door-opening holder where its head should be), but others have a large enough sized market that there is enough competition that not only is there multilayered segments but also duplicating features that commoditized criteria like price and materials become the primary drivers of a purchase.

The robo-vacuum category is one such market, where sometimes it comes down to price and build that determine a user’s buying decision even more than brand or features; while for other users, brand or quality matter more.

 

8) How much AI do you want?

Some bots (fully or semi-autonomous) perform a specific function that there’s no real need for more elaborate features like machine learning functions.

An autonomous, vertical window-cleaning slug-like smart cleaner can and should do its job of cleaning your glass panes and wiggle around well without needing to tell you stock quotes, for example. Ditto for pool-cleaning bots.

But some units can use a fair level of artificial intelligence in their heads. For example, who would have thought you wanted more from a speaker than to listen to it produce good-quality sound for your music? But as it turns out, people absolutely loved Amazon’s Echo line with Alexa for its AI built-in. Now you have a speaker who you can ask general questions, order to schedule a meeting, tell jokes, read the news for you, list a recipe or send an email. And people went wild with their wallets on it.

So consider if you’re really interested in paying the extra amount to have Alexa on your robotic vacuum, or if you have a small home and don’t really need to be able to order it by voice.

 

9) Lifetime Cost / Value

This one is related to making a long-term view.

Consider the way you’ll be using your robotic unit over the years and the lifetime value you expect it to serve you. And see if the cost is justified.

It works both ways of the spectrum:

a) If you don’t expect it to be used beyond a specific function (like a stock-trading AI), or go beyond a novel gift (like a smart mecha toy), or think that the novelty will wear off relatively moderately, then price considerations should be in order.

b) On the other hand, cost would not be that much of an issue such that you may forgo the immediate direct costs (or make arrangements to put it on debt or credit) if a robotic unit puts your life higher on the easy scale by automating or taking away some of the repetitive work you would otherwise have to do, that you may spend time on, or that you simply don’t enjoy even thinking about doing (like cleaning windows or the floor), especially something that should be done on a fairly regular basis.

 

10) User Community or easy online availability of resources

If you’re not an enthusiast or serious user, knowing that there’s a community of users behind a product comes in handy even if you only wish to be among kindred spirits who enjoy the use of the product or brand you’re also using. They come even handier if something goes wrong, knowing there are people with the same machine who may have answers, especially those who may have undergone a similar experience.

On the other hand, if you’re a serious user, kit builder, maker, robotics enthusiast or professional, then a community behind the product or platform you’re using is essential. Not only would they guide you when you’re new to a platform, brand or model, but be available for help, assistance, suggestions, consultation, and ideas during your use or development.

Getting good, specific answers and advice from people who are as knowledgeable (or more so for specific specialties) specifically about your machine goes a long way, not just towards a good fix, but making you enjoy the process.

It also doesn’t hurt that collectively, you are a voice that can force the company behind the machine or platform you’re using to listen and do what its users want, whether it’s a feature or fix, or infrastructural change that the manufacturers wouldn’t have otherwise considered or acted upon if it weren’t a community demanding an issue addressed.

 

11) Ease of setup

Some people realize, too late, that they bought a robotic device only to be swamped by a large instruction set that requires hours and hours of assembly and preparation when all they really wanted was to open the box and start playing with their expensive toy.

On the other hand, heavy users and enthusiasts would want the opposite: as many details and information as possible, to help them attain the results they seek or make their intelligent machines release their hidden talents and secrets.

Whichever side of the coin you’re in, knowing the speed, time and ease of setup required will either help make (or break) your decision and know beforehand what to expect.

 

12) Amount of owner intervention and required actions involved

This is not the same as the east of setup (above), but rather the amount of “assistance” a robotic device’s owners usually need to perform for the proper functioning of their unit.

For example, most robotic window cleaners are great on large panes, but for those with many wedges and frames, user intervention may be required after the device finishes ones glass (or side) and need to be manually removed and repositioned on the other glass or pane. This still saves the user a lot of time, work, and grief, especially if it’s a tall set of windows. But it may be too much for the trouble for those with small windows or homes.

The same goes for smart vacuums, for example. Some units stall or get stuck in a loop if a room has plenty of tight spaces or obstacles, or don’t resume cleaning after a mid-clean pause occurs because it needs to recharge. In these sporadic, unintended cases, the user will have to intervene, even if it just as simple and quick as repositioning the unit. And it’s a symptom some models may have but not present in others.

Therefore, knowing this beforehand, and knowing your aggravation threshold for such things as compared to the cost savings you may enjoy instead of buying a far more expensive unit without such issues, would make for a far happier camper of its owner.

Key Features to Look For in a Robot

1) Reputation for Quality: Durability and Reliability

It’s still early days for modern consumer robotics and they are a marked improvement from ordinary machines not too long ago. Therefore, they normally come at a price that is higher and of quality that can be unpredictable. Therefore, the manufacturer, years of operation and reputation are as important as the known durability and reliability of the units they produce.

2) Customer Service and Support

Many forget about this in the excitement of taking home their prized bot… until it doesn’t work or starts to sputter not long after they’re first used. And no matter how good the reviews or reputation of your device, it doesn’t matter one whit if you can’t get a hold of the company’s reps. Make sure the company behind the product you are about to buy is known for a good level of service, or at least not known for a bad one.

3) Warranty

1 year of parts and labor usually come standard. But that isn’t enough. You should seek relief when you determine their product isn’t up to muster, or a warranty based on the product not working in any way, instead of just a changing of parts when doing so still won’t make the product work as advertised or to your liking.

4) Battery life

Determine the scope of what your unit will be used for, and base your battery and operational time requirements on that. For example, if you have a large home, pick a robovacuum with a longer battery life (and larger dust bin) so your unit doesn’t have to stop its operation mid-work to charge (by itself or require you to do it manually) regularly.

5) Update frequency

How good its firmware or software operates and how often are upgrades, improvements and software fixes updated. You wouldn’t want one that’s made too often as this can cause its own issue pertaining to willy-nilly updates that haven’t been fully tested, but you want one with enough update cycles so you’re always ahead with new features, security patches, or simply general fixes and improvements.

6) Extensibility and Programmability: How Much Customization or programming do you want?

If you’re a casual user or just want your hands on your bot or droid so it starts performing as quickly as possible with as little assembly or manual labor on your part (like setting up a window-cleaning bot or an entertainment unit), make sure to determine it beforehand and save yourself hours of agony in construction and customization.

On the other hand, if you’re the type that wants total control and customizability, or wants to be able to program your unit or kit with plenty of control, do note that there are many advanced or popular and expensive bots in the market that do not really support programming. You want one ideally with its own coding or visual development system, or one that uses popular standard languages based on an OS that is open and popular, or one with a robust SDK. Or all three.

Factor these into your decisions and in considering how much of these you’ll be doing as your unit ages, and it can mean the difference between a unit you get bored about not too long after purchase, and one that keeps you happy for a long time to come.

FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a robot and artificial intelligence (AI)?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a software program designed for tasks normally associated with human intelligence, while a robot (hardware) is a machine — usually a self-operating one and especially one programmable by a computer or software program — that performs mechanical and electronic tasks and carrying out a series of actions, either controlled in full or in part by humans.

They can be autonomous via programs specifically designed to maneuver them, as well as if AI is built-in so it makes decisions generally on its own, whether via predefined rules or independently on its own.

Though they are separate concepts, they are related because an AI could be built into a robot and serve like its brain, or a separate entity running inside the robotic device.

Modern gadgets, for example, have a kind of narrow AI built into them, such as Siri for Apple, Google Assistant (available for iOS and Android, Alexa for Amazon Echo and other devices, and Cortana for Microsoft products. (Without requiring a robot at all.)

Think of a robot as a physical machine, automaton, and container for AI, sometimes taking on a humanoid form but not always, while an AI is like its brain (not necessarily inside a robot “head”), or the software or wetware inside the robot.

What is the difference between a robot, droid, android, bot, autonomous machines, mechs?

Semantics, for the most part. But to be exacting: A robot or “bot” is usually a mechanical, electrical machine or anything systematic that performs tasks or moves based on predefined instructions, or based on decisions made by an internal AI made to control it.

An android is usually defined as a human-like robot, usually with an advanced artificial intelligence that mimics or is as good as (or better than) a human intelligence.

A droid can be taken as a shorter version of the term “android,” but can vary depending on the situation, including being another term for intelligent, self-moving machines, to probes, to robotic unit that don’t exactly look very human, but take on some of their forms or perform and interact like smart automatons with independence and freedom of movement, like C3PO, R2D2 or BB-8 in Star Wars.

Who and what country made the first robot?

The first commercial, digital robot was called the Unimate, built by George Devol in 1954.

But humankind’s desire for the ultimate in technology by way of independently moving or thinking machines goes all the way back to ancient history.

This includes Ancient China, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Greece when people conceptualized of automation and even attempted to build self-operating machines, some of which resembled animals and humans.

It wasn’t until 1920 however, when the term ‘robot’ came out, applied as a term for artificial automata by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. which stood for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” even though he credited his brother Josef Čapek as the real originator of the term that he used in his play, with the term actually existing in older Slavic roots as “robota” (forced laborer).

What are the advantages of using robots?

Too many to mention, but essentially covered in blanket categories like automation, heavy lifting, constant working, helping developers compute faster, better; reaching solutions better and faster; solving the world’s problems– including the hardest ones– better and better. And many more besides that basically serve as tools and technology to help humans do things better, or do things that we couldn’t otherwise do before.

If you’d like specific advantages and benefits, here are just a few:

  • Lifting the physical and emotional burdens
  • Doing mundane jobs like driving cars (and trucks)
    Improving on actions and work that are traditionally prone to human error (like driving, where bad driving cause traffic or accidents; or where radio communication between robotic autonomous cars can coordinate concurrent movement, starting and stopping and having a big positive impact on traffic movement)
  • Boosting productivity such as in factories or manufacturing, for example, or smart farming with multiple vehicles that used to require dozens of humans now needing only one controller in a facility remotely.
  • Helping us do things that humans are too unpredictable or weak to do; or helping us
  • Boosting our productivity
  • Providing fun and entertainment
  • Helping research and development, including faster and better ways to do things, such as robotic scanners that find diseases treatments to health problems far more accurately
  • Making recommendations (such as to patients) from a database of minute details and connections that even the best professionals (like doctors in this example) cannot independently hold without aid
  • Helping with our habits, such as the AI that makes recommendations to your purchases online or what movies to watch on Netflix.

These barely scratch the surface of the many advantages, as well as benefits (and growing) available to us now or in widespread use in the very near future. But it should give you a good taste of what’s possible.

Though robotics, like any technology and tool, can have its drawbacks and aren’t altogether perfect (hardly anything is, after all), their usefulness cannot be overemphasized.

What are the disadvantages of using robots?

This depends on the specific machine you use, of course. But in general, beyond the need for manual intervention sometimes, the answer to this question is: not much, really.

In fact, it’s a shame that people love the idea of the promise they bring, but also hate on them a lot, even if only because of the mainstream media and Hollywood sowing the seeds of peoples’ fears and hatred of machines due to an image or Terminators or articles about Skynet in almost every other article or film they produced.

Unlike animals (or humans for that matter) that require to eat, rest, sleep and take vacations or sick leaves, machines don’t need or require any of that beyond maintenance and feeding it with the raw materials it needs to work with.

However, those with mechanical parts (robots) may require regular or sporadic maintenance regimens, or replacements and parts. When you realize ordinary machines need these as well anyway, then the difference with bots aren’t really very clear.

But some parts may require sourcing from specific locations or companies, simply because there aren’t that many standards-based parts and accessories (save some motors and actuators) yet. As such, having your suppliers’ contact info or (if you’re far away) an inventory of ready parts and access to technicians would be useful.

The downside is usually when an algorithm, learning process or unintended, unplanned action occurs, such as AI trading programs gone haywire and bringing the stock market to its knees. Of course, these are extremely seldom (though with profound and devastating effects) and serve as cautions of technology gone wild.

Is it a good time to buy now?

It is always a good time to buy, especially now when the fruits of the explosion of research and development into robotics and artificial intelligence in the past few years have come to the marketplace with different products of varying functions and price points that it’s up to the buyer what specific function they want at what specific cost.

How important is learning robotics?

If you’re a casual user or consumer, not important at all. (Obviously, very much so if you’re into robotics in any capacity, such as a professional, enthusiast, engineer or researcher.)

However, the practice of robotics is still important even for general users, and why students are encouraged to do this since robotics is a topic that encompasses different disciplines.

Particularly for S.T.E.M., the knowledge and experience gained in the learning of this field enhances one’s expertise, general knowledge, and overall grades and familiarity not just for the technology that’s here to stay and will have greater weight going forward, but the strength one gains in important subjects like science, technology, engineering and math in the fun learning process of robotics, as well as the many benefits surrounding that that accrue as well.

And that works the same way for kids and adults as well as beginners and seasoned professionals.

Do these products spy on you?

No. And yes. Let me explain.

Generally, they do not spy on you, and companies that build them (the way Amazon, Google, and other larger organizations) pronounce the many hoops they go through to ensure their devices do not spy on you or record what’s happening around them. But they do “listen” in because they have to, on the chance that you call on them (especially if it’s a voice-activated unit like an Alexa-enabled one or Google Home that responds when you activate it by voice) and ask something or issue a command.

That being said, just like your laptop or cell phone, the risk of unintended or malicious spying (such as if a device or home network is hacked) is technically possible, though highly unlikely, given the steps and trouble their manufacturers go through to secure their products.

What are things bots cannot do?

The better question is actually this: What are things that bots cannot do better than humans, yet?

The answer to that is, a lot. For now. But that may change, as research and development continue unabated, particularly if the benefits of having them provide for a greater good for a vast number of people.

Robots and AI are growing into the lifestyle and workloads of humans with such speed and acceptance that they’re already doing a lot of what used to be domains previously dominated by humans alone.

The specifics as to whether they will take away jobs from humans or create new ones and save people or solve problems are separate topics or argument we won’t and shouldn’t be covering here, but regardless of what side of the divide you’re on, the fact is that while the media will try to pander to viewers and tout how bad robots and AI are at jobs humans do easily (like play basketball or perform invasive surgery on a patient), they do more than most people realize, like helping fly planes, sort through cases in a law office, and a host of other things, including driving cars on their own.

Do I need to register my bot?

Generally no, unless it is in the form of a UAV (drone) like the Skydio R series, or industrial robotic units that have complicated functions or that can pose as hazardous to people nearby. If you didn’t purchase your unit from a consumer store or have any doubts, consult the seller or manufacturer via any contact information in-store or online.

Are they safe? For kids? For pets?

Robotic devices are generally safe, depending. Units with moving and removable parts can indeed be choking hazards for kids, so handle whose with care (the kids and situation, even more than the units). On the other hand, your pet cats may enjoy a moving playing companion beyond your boring goldfish; while your dog may find a new intruder to bark at and bully into a chew toy.

Can I resell my unit?

Yes. There are plenty of aftermarket opportunities online and offline for “pre-loved” units; from general marketplaces like eBay to specific communities on social media or forums and associations online.

This is especially good because robotic devices don’t come cheap, and there are always people on the lookout for the functionality they want or need without the hefty price tag associated with a brand new one.

Conclusion

It’s a great time to be alive. Since the dawn of humankind, our use of tools (technology) was a major part in separating us from other species and what gave us the edge. For centuries we’ve used tools and technology to do things better, bigger, stronger and faster.

It also compounds, so each generation builds on the previous ones, in a virtuous cycle that keeps improving (though not always to positive effect). Ever since we built and utilized machines, there was always a dream that we could somehow bring that automation to the point where we would need to intervene less and less.

Following that graph to its logical conclusion, we see the curve of automation reach a point where machines become truly autonomous and operate themselves.

Guess what? Today we live in a time when the process of transitioning to this dream is becoming reality. And not just in terms of research that is already, but in actual products and services

Yet, although the philosophy is as old as civilization itself, AI and robotics as dreamed in books and movies are alive but still in its earliest stages. And there’s a long way to go, with a lot more amazing coming to our lives.

But today’s advances are already impressive. And they work.

Whatever your ultimate purpose for using robots, there is enough progress in today’s available technology that we can start using them to make our lives better.

As evidenced by the products in this list, we are already living in the future, and you can have a good piece of it by owning any of the curiously entertaining, functional or useful items (or all three) above.

It is yet another inflection point. Things are going to get even better, but you don’t have to wait and enjoy the amazing tech available now.

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