Microbots Win Award for Design But Don’t Actually Exist

The annual technology design competition that has featured such innovations as the digital spoon that tastes food for you, named as this year’s winner a home-cleaning device that is to vacuuming what bees would be if they’d been assimilated by Borg.

The Electrolux Design Labs competition is sponsored by the vacuum-cleaner company to encourage and reward genuine innovation in technology and design, but tends to revolve heavily around products or services designed for the home.

This year’s winner is “The Mab,” a spherical robot/ RC mini-drone autonomous remote-controller that cleans the house by releasing a swarm of flying mini-robotic drones, each carrying a drop of water with which it will rigorously clean a very, very tiny part of your home at a time.

Colombian designer Perez Zapata designed The Mab after watching the pattern of activity of bees flying out from the hive to collect pollen.

The Mab is designed for people “who do not have the time available to perform housekeeping activities and do not want to do this activity,” which narrows the potential market down to everyone.

Mab, requires only a brief initial setup and works independently, according to Zapata’s description. The spherical home base locates its position in the house by GPS, selects portions of the house to clean by sending its minions out to find the dirt, connects to home networks to report on its performance, and charges itself up via solar energy collected on the wings of the micro-robots or one of two wireless charging systems. It can take orders online or via a voice-recognition system and directs the micro-cleaning robots via radio-frequency remote control.

The micro aerial vehicles (MAV) fly in a spiral pattern along any of 75 cleaning routes in each of four deployment areas and should be able to fly for as long at 15 minutes using tiny fuel cells, piezoelectric activators or solar cells inspired by the wings of butterflies – a technology being developed at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab.

It can also sync data with a mobile device, presumably to update its owner on household hygiene status and whether any honey-stealing Pooh Bears have been sighted in the area.

While The Mab and MAVs are a beautifully elegant design, they exist as designs – concept illustrations created by the designer, rather than actual technology built in a lab or garage and prettified afterward.

So, rather than being the next thing to be the best thing since the Roomba, The Mab exists primarily as geek art – a concept and design without the machinery to make it happen – some of which doesn’t exist yet. The Harvard micro-battery projects, for example, are years form producing commercially produced batteries that can power a MAV for 15 minutes.

The Mab beat out other finalists (which are also in a semi-permanent “visual design” stage), including:

Atomium – a 3D printer designed for parents with picky toddlers, which is designed to develop meals based on diners’ shape-and-color preferences;

Breathing Wall – a reactive surface that changes color based on the levels of tension it detects and contains air filters with which it automatically scrapes from the air any foul smells from other design concepts.

3F – a kind of Star Trek-The-Next-Generation version of an aroma scent stick that can change scent and purpose to disinfect the house and “provide an all-encompassing immersion in a scented universe.”

Also running up was Nutrima, which looks like an iPad-sized rubberized food preparation surface, but which evidently detects the organic content, nutritional levels and agricultural sustainability of the food placed on it, and includes a major social networking component whose function is not clear.

All the products are extremely attractive, highlight the talents of the designers, and call attention to Electrolux as a source of cutting-edge industrial-design illustrations.

Vaporware addicts and others who are enthusiastic about the creation of new visual concepts in technology, but aren’t eager for the functions or machines they promise should check out the 100 original entrants and process of judging and elimination.

Everyone else should forget about design competitions and build something instead.


Image: Electrolux/Perez Zapata

One Response to “Microbots Win Award for Design But Don’t Actually Exist”

  1. Sorry Kevin, I completely disagree with you. In order to innovate, you have to explore possibilities. Sometimes ideas work in their existing form utilizing available technology, but often the idea drives the technology.

    When I was a kid I didn’t have a robotic vacuum, touch screen phone, a sensor that tracked my sleep, and our car didn’t know my favorite radio station. Now I have all of that and a lot of other inventions that started out as someone’s “geek art”.

    NASA, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford all invest in innovation. This geek artist believes they’re on the right track.