Could robots invade our living room? Norfolk-born inventor attempts to win the race to invent the first domestic android

Sir James Dyson. Picture: DAVID PARRY/PA WIRE Sir James Dyson. Picture: DAVID PARRY/PA WIRE

Monday, February 10, 2014
5:48 PM

As it is revealed that Norfolk-born inventor James Dyson has joined the race to design a new breed of ‘domestic robots’, reporter Lauren Cope asks how the county would feel about having robots in their homes.

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Who is James Dyson?

James Dyson was born in Cromer in 1947, as one of three children. He was sent to Gresham’s School in Holt, from 1956 to 1965.

His first original invention in the early 70s was a Ballbarrow, a wheelbarrow with a ball instead of a wheel, a concept he later used in his Dyson Ball vacuum. The invention was featured on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World.

In the late 70s, Dyson had the idea of using cyclonic separation to create a vacuum cleaner that would not lose suction as it picked up dirt. He eventually setup his own manufacturing company, Dyson Ltd, and in 1993 opening a research centre and factory in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

Dyson’s breakthrough in the UK came through a TV advertising campaign which emphasised the feature of not needing to purchase replacement bags. The Dyson Dual Cyclone became the fastest-selling vacuum cleaner ever made.

In the 1996 New Year’s Honours, he was awarded a CBE for services to business.

He currently lives in Gloucestershire with his wife Deidre and three children, Emily, Jacob and Sam. They also own a £3m chateau in France.

His company now employs over 5,000 people and had a turnover last year of £1.1bn.

In the latest Sunday Times Rich List Sir James was reported as being worth £3bn.

Cromer-born entrepreneur and inventor James Dyson has joined the race to design a new generation of ‘intelligent domestic robots’ after investing £5m into the project.

Sir James, a former pupil of Gresham’s School in Holt, has put the money into a joint robotics lab with Imperial College, London, to make ‘previously unthinkable technologies’ a reality.

If successful, the new generation of robots will be able to vacuum, take out the rubbish and even watch out for intruders.

The college has begun hiring up to 15 scientists who will work on developing robot vision systems which could be used in robot-controlled vacuums, according to The Times, who first broke the story.

James DysonJames Dyson

Sir James’ investment will compete with advances made by the US and Japan, who have both undergone heavy research and development into robotics.

The entrepreneur, 66, who is famous for inventing the bagless Dyson vacuum cleaner, plans to create ‘practical everyday technologies that will make our lives easier’.

The project will put Dyson into competition with Google, which has recently taken over eight robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, a manufacturer of robots for the US military.

But would hate people of Norfolk be interested in the creation by one of its former sons?

Accountant Andrew Brookes, 48, from Diss, said: “I think if it was tested properly and there were no dangers to consider then it would probably be a great idea. It would save a lot of time for those who already have a busy lifestyle, although I guess we would have to think of the cost.”

Alex Turnbull, 36, a receptionist from Dereham, added: “Well it is a good idea but it would be better if it was used for the tasks that everyone hates, like ironing and washing. I don’t mind vacuuming really, and particularly wouldn’t if there was a robot doing the ironing and horrible chores for me.”

Sir James has been working on robot vacuum cleaners for nearly a decade at the company’s Malmesbury headquarters but has been frustrated by its low battery power and inability to adapt to change.

He said: “They perform precise, highly controlled movements in an environment that doesn’t change.

“In a complex environment – the home or garden – a machine must understand and perceive its environment. Such technology would have wide ranging application.”

However, Tina James, 26, from Norwich, said she feared society ‘wasn’t ready’ for such an invention. She added: “I could imagine this in a few years but it just seems to bigger step for the moment. After all the horror movies I think quite a few people would be scared of having a robot in their house.”

Student Tom Harris, 18, from Wymondham, added: “I think that would be really cool. By the time I am old enough to have my own place and do the housework like this it could make my life much easier. You would think that with everything we already have there will be robots for everything sooner or later.”

Sixty-four-year-old Graham Day, a pensioner from Diss, said: “My mother lives by herself and is quite elderly, so to have something there that would take the pressure off and help her do the chores would be a great thing to have. However, I would have some safety concerns about it.”

The project, which will be announced formally later this week, is led by Professor Andrew Davison, who has been working on the vision since 1994 and joined Imperial College in 2005.

Professor Davison said: “A truly intelligent domestic robot needs to complete complex every day tasks while adapting to a constantly changing environment.

“We will research and develop systems that allow machines to both understand and perceive their surroundings – using vision to achieve it.”

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