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(Updated 10/4/01)

Robodog - a 'best friend for the Internet age

BRITAIN’S BEST-loved breed of dog now has an electronic rival for the 21st century. Step forward RoboDog, the electronic Labrador.

The cyber canine is the brainchild of a British team of former Formula One racing designers and can mimic the real thing is a variety of ways. RoboDog can climb stairs, chase balls, perform tricks and acrobatics and even cock its leg to ‘relieve’ itself. It will also hurry eagerly to the front door when it anticipates the return of its human master.
With a programmable personality, video and e-mail links to the internet , plus the strength to carry a five year-old child on its back, the RoboDog is a clear step up from previous robotic canines - some of which are available relatively cheaply in high street stores.

However, RoboDog - or RS-01 - is somewhat more expensive than its inferior rivals and, indeed, twice as expensive as its real-life counterpart, at £20,000. Even though it does not need vaccinations, pet food, toys or neutering, the cyber canine costs rather more than the £11,000 it costs to keep a real-life labrador, according to RSPCA estimates.

“We are unashamedly looking for early adopters with a shed load of money,” says Nick Wirth, the dog’s chief designer. “It is expensive, but it is more than a simple entertainment robot. It is the Model T of home robots.”
Mr Wirth predicts that RoboDog will be the forerunner of a squad of domestic robots that will one day be fulfilling the old Sci-Fi dream of being household servants, emptying dishwashers, dusting furniture and emptying dustbins.
“When I left Formula One I wanted to find an industry that was new and in which I could make a difference by applying the technologies and intense methodical work ethic of Formula One,” adds Mr Wirth.

But whereas Japanese companies such as Honda and Sony have spent millions of pounds developing their own robots - including cyber dogs - Mr Wirth’s company, RoboScience, based near Silverstone, Northants, has taken seven months and cost a six-figure sum.

As yet, RoboDog cannot fetch the newspaper, but Mr Wirth said that the robotic pet could easily be upgraded to perform any specific task its owner wanted.

“It could be adapted to fetch your slippers - when we develop its ability to recognise slippers.” said Mr Wirth.
At a demonstration last week, the prototype whizzed through its paces without a hitch. The only problem appeared to be the grinding sound of its many motors as it moved, although Mr Wirth promised that he would find a way of dampening down the sound before a limited edition ‘litter’ of 200 RoboDogs are delivered to customers in September.

Under its hard exoskeleton, 16 high-speed servomotors replicate all the natural movements of a real dog. The legs can turn and twist in any dimension, the head shakes and dips and, crucially, the tail wags.

Given spoken instructions, RoboDog will sit, lie down, stand and walk in almost any direction, including sideways, like a crab. Motion sensors pick up movement in front of its nose, prompting RoboDog to raise its paw for a shake. If left unattended, its head eventually droops and it nods off to ‘sleep’, until a new command is issued.

RoboDog has an in-built Pentium computer that communicates via a radio link to a laptop to display the world as seen through RoboDog’s single eye and also will read out e-mails.

“If you are in New York, say, you’ll be able to connect to RoboDog via the internet and direct it around your house to see what’s going on,” says Mr Wirth.

Whether RoboDog will ever become as popular as a flesh and blood Labrador - let alone any other breed of dog - remains to be seen, especially with the possibility of cloning much-loved pets is relatively close at hand. However, RoboDog doesn’t need to be taken walkies and doesn’t leave hair on the floor.

Then again, maybe that’s the real charm of a real-life dog, rather than a glorified toaster with e-mail access.