GENEVA -- The use of robots to mow lawns, vacuum floors, and perform other household chores is set to surge sevenfold by 2007, says a United Nations survey, which credits dropping prices for the robot boom.
The increase in domestic robots coincides with record orders for industrial robots, the UN's annual World Robotics Survey adds.
The report, issued yesterday by the UN Economic Commission for Europe and the International Federation of Robotics, says 607,000 automated domestic helpers were in use at the end of 2003, two thirds of them purchased last year.
Most of them -- 570,000 -- were robot vacuum cleaners. Sales of lawn-mowing robots reached 37,000.
By the end of 2007, some 4.1 million domestic robots will likely be in use, the study says. Vacuum cleaners will still make up the majority, but sales of window-washing and pool-cleaning robots are also set to take off, it predicts.
Sales of robotic companions, like Sony's canine-like Aibo, also have climbed, with some 692,000 ''entertainment robots" around the world.
Until very recently, robots have failed to live up to expectations, said Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass., whose Roomba is a popular robotic vacuum cleaner. IRobot also makes robots used by the US military.
''Our biggest hurdle right now is skepticism," Angle said. But ''we are just at a point where robots are becoming affordable . . . and some of them can actually do real work."
The UN Economic Commission for Europe said household robots could soon edge their industrial counterparts, which have dominated since the UN body first began counting in 1990.
In the first half of 2004, business orders for robots were up 18 percent on the same period a year earlier.
Japan remains the most robotized economy, home to around half the current 800,000 industrial robots. European Union countries had 250,000 robots in operation at the end of last year, mostly in Germany, Italy, and France. Demand from North American businesses rose 28 percent, with some 112,000 robots in service by the end of last year.
Most industrial robots are used on assembly lines. But increasingly, companies are using them for other tasks, the study said.
There are now some 21,000 ''service robots" in use, milking cows, handling toxic waste, ferrying medicine around hospitals, and assisting surgeons. The number is set to reach a total of 75,000 by 2007, the study says.
That's just the beginning.
By the end of the decade, the study says, robots will ''assist old and handicapped people with sophisticated interactive equipment, carry out surgery, inspect pipes and sites that are hazardous to people, fight fire and bombs."