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House-sitting robot stands guard

by Don Hunt

Sanyo have built a guard-dragon robot to replace human house sitters. At only US$16,000 each I think we’re safe.

14 December 2002

When we first started hearing about a new whimsical purple and orange dragon named Banryu who could call your cell phone if you left the iron on, we were a bit hesitant to dig any deeper.

Frankly, it seemed like Adam Sandler or maybe those Pokemon people had to be involved somehow. Neither seemed very relevant for this column.

Much to our relief, it turns out Banryu isn’t the co-star of a wacky Sandler flick or an incomprehensible video game. Japanese for ‘guard-dragon,’ Banryu is actually a house-sitting robot from Sanyo, complete with four legs and an array of unique, high-tech environmental sensors.

Just under three feet tall and just over three feet long, Banryu is shaped like a sleek, futuristic dragon, complete with long plastic snout, four functional legs and even a back ‘fin.’ Derek Wentz of Sanyo says the Banryu was developed specifically for the home market as both a playful and highly functional robotic appliance.

‘The concept of the Banryu robot is to serve as a device that ‘watches’ over the home while the owner is out of the house,’ Wentz said, citing the small dragon’s wide range of technical sensing and communications abilities.

Banryu has onboard sensors and a camera to detect sounds, motion and significant changes in temperature. It also has an odor sensor, something Sanyo claims is the first of its kind, providing the ability to detect the specific burning scent that can precede a house fire. Much like a guard dog, security system and smoke detector rolled into one, the robot strives to provide new peace of mind for traveling homeowners.

‘By equipping Banryu with these features, it can ‘sense’ anything out of the ordinary, such as odors of gas, smoke, the presence of someone who should not be in the home, or sounds that could represent something out of the ordinary that should be looked into,’ Wentz said.

Battery-powered and mobile, Banryu’s legs will move it across the floor at a top speed of about 16 feet a minute – not exactly blazing, but try to find a faster dragon that will fit in your family room. Leg-based sensors are designed to help it maneuver around objects and over gaps without getting stuck. Its movements can be controlled via voice commands, a wireless remote or even telephone-keyed commands. Indeed, Banryu’s core functionality depends on the dragon having your cellphone number.

‘The owner programs his or her mobile phone number into the robot. When the owner leaves the home they set the Banryu on ‘watch mode’ which activates the robot’s sensors of smell, sound, and ‘person’ detector,’ Wentz said. ‘In the event the robot’s sensors picks up the smell of smoke or gas or senses the presence of an intruder, the robot calls the owner’s mobile phone. The robot also allows the user to view conditions inside the home on the screen of his or her mobile phone while away from home. Using the arrow keys on the mobile phones keyboard can control the robot to move from room to room from a remote location.’

Unlike other recent attempts at home robotics, Banryu will not be controllable via a remote Web interface. The unit’s proprietary phone communications system is the only remote access method currently planned.

An initial test introduction of 50 Banryu units is currently slated for Japan this spring. If you have to ask how much a guard-dragon costs, you probably can’t afford it. In this case, one of the first 50 units will run approximately $16,000 each.

While there are no immediate plans for US distribution, Wentz said Sanyo would definitely like to bring Banryu to American homes at some future point. While English-based information on the robot is hard to come by, the Japanese-language Web site for Banryu is and does include additional photos.

Don Hunt and Brian Edwards write about technology related to buying, renting and fixing homes. Write The High-Tech Home, Chicago Tribune, New Homes section, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611.

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Don Hunt

About the author: Don Hunt

Don Hunt and Brian Edwards write a column for the Chicago Tribune.