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Champagne? Security? The robots deliver

But at $31,000-plus, the help's not cheap

Email|Print| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / November 12, 2007

AMHERST, N.H. - Visit the offices of MobileRobots Inc. and you're met at the door by a robot toting two champagne glasses and a bottle of bubbly.

"My name is Jeeves," it says. "Forgive my lack of a British accent. I haven't downloaded it yet."

Jeeves spins on its rubber wheels and politely asks the visitor to follow him to the conference room. It's an impressive performance, befitting a robot butler with a $31,000 price tag.

Jeeves is one of three new machines just launched by MobileRobots, a 12-year-old maker of delivery and surveillance robots that's moving into the consumer market.

Jeeves' $32,000 colleague, BrewskiBot, carries a miniature refrigerator capable of storing two six-packs of beer.

Then there's Agent 007, a $35,000 machine with a video camera and microphone that's capable of patrolling your home and alerting you to intruders.

All three of the robots carry laser range-finders that can generate a map of your home so they can guide themselves from room to room. They also have a digital speech generator, so they can regale visitors or burglars with a variety of greetings, threats, or insults.

Jeeves and BrewskiBot are essentially self-propelled serving trays. Neither can open and pour a beverage; they just carry the drinks from room to room.

Agent 007 is more practical. It can transmit still images or videos anywhere in the world, via an Internet link.

A worried homeowner can control it remotely, using software on a laptop computer; just the thing for a traveler who thinks he left the iron plugged in.

"Obviously, this is an upscale product," said MobileRobots' chief executive, Jeanne Dietsch, who hopes to sell the bots to wealthy homeowners with a taste for novelty. "It's fun. You have the money to do it. So why not?"

The machines are MobileRobots' first foray into the home robot market, a business that's currently dominated by iRobot Corp., of Burlington, with its Roomba and Scooba floor-cleaning machines, priced between $120 and $500. IRobot has sold millions of the machines, making it the first company to make a profit selling robots to the masses.

IRobot will soon introduce ConnectR, a $500 machine with a video camera, speaker, and microphone that will let users view live video from their homes, and even converse with visitors.

But Dietsch has little use for iRobot's cheap and simple technology. "They're doing it at a hundredth of the price, and you're getting a hundredth of the quality," she said. Dietsch said the camera on her company's robots is of far higher quality and capable of a greater range of motion.

In addition, the home machines use the same basic chassis found on MobileRobots' PatrolBot line of industrial and commercial machines. The company has sold about a thousand PatrolBots. They're used for video surveillance and for automated delivery of materials in warehouses, factories, and hospitals. Dietsch said the basic PatrolBot platform is so robust that her company will offer a 1,000-mile warranty on its home robots.

But who needs a robot butler?

Neena Buck, an independent robotics industry analyst in Cambridge, said there's not much of a market for the services of Jeeves or BrewskiBot.

"It's hard to cost-justify such a purchase unless you just have so much money that you don't need to go through such an exercise," Buck said.

The prospects for Agent 007 may be considerably brighter, Buck said, if MobileRobots can integrate them into existing home-security networks like those offered by ADT Security Services Inc. or The Brink's Co.

For instance, a remote security agency might use the robots to carry out security sweeps on behalf of clients. "Then I think it would be pretty valuable for very high-end homes," Buck said.

Even so, the high price would put Agent 007 far beyond the reach of most people.

Dietsch said that as wealthy early adopters buy the first generation of her home robots, prices will fall. "I can see it getting down to $15,000," she said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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