Company puts money into laboratory at Imperial College London to develop devices such as robotic vacuum cleaners
His company, best known for its vacuum cleaners, is putting the money into a laboratory at Imperial College London, which has begun hiring up to 15 scientists who will work on developing robot vision systems that could be used in devices such as robot-controlled vacuums – a longstanding ambition of Dyson himself.
The inventor said the plan was to create "practical everyday technologies that will make our lives easier".
The move could put Dyson into a position where it is directly challenging Google, which has recently acquired eight robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, which has made self-controlling robots for the US military. In January it spent £400m acquiring DeepMind Technologies, a London-based startup focusing on artificial intelligence.
Dyson was critical of the decision by the two-year-old company to sell itself. "It seems a pity to me to sell out, as I don't quite understand the urge to give up," Dyson told the Guardian. "Long-term thinking is essential to new technology. We should be encouraging UK companies to invest in R&D and take on armies of engineers so that they can grow and become UK world-beaters."
Dyson established his company in 1985, and it now employs 3,100 people worldwide and had a turnover of £1.1bn in 2012.
The Dyson project inside Imperial College will be formally announced later this week. Its leader, Prof Andrew Davison, said he would be working on "perception and computer vision technology, with the goal of developing a new type of robot that can move beyond controlled locations such as factories, and into a wide range of applications and products in the home, and difficult environments."
Davison, who has been working on robot vision since 2002, and joined Imperial College in 2012, is already a consultant to Dyson. He said robot technology was presently limited: "There might be nice demonstrations but we can't yet buy a robot that can do anything in the home for a reasonable price."
Dyson is known to have been working for nearly a decade on a robot vacuum cleaner at the company's Malmesbury headquarters. But it is understood that he has been dissatisfied with prototypes' battery life, and the inability to navigate around a typical room with obstacles such as tables and chair legs.
There are already a number of robot vacuum cleaners on sale, such as the Roomba from iRobot, which uses an infrared sensor and a contact-sensitive front bumper, as well as "cliff sensors" to avoid drops. But they have sold in limited numbers, and cannot deduce the contents of a room; instead their coverage comes from a series of automatically generated paths.
Davison developed a breakthrough computing method which can carry out "simultaneous localisation and mapping" – known in the robotics world as Slam – to create a 3D map of a space with a single camera. Previous systems have required at least two cameras. In one academic paper, Davison showed how his system could be used for an autonomous robot that was able to walk around a room on its own using a wireless link to a computer.
"Professor Davison was the first to use vision as the only sensor on a robot," Dyson said. "Vision is key to creating a robot that can see and think in the way that humans do. Combining Dyson expertise in motors, electronics and artificial intelligence we hope to create a new generation of intelligent domestic robots."
Davison said such systems could be built using relatively cheap cameras from smartphones. "The essential problem of understanding the world that's around a robot is still very challenging if you want to do it at a reasonable price rather than tens of thousands of pounds," he said.
Google's acquisition of robotics companies is "closer to our interests in making practical robots that can move around and demonstrate real capability", Davison said. "But the whole area of mass-market robotics has yet to be defined."
Dyson said: "I've no idea what companies Google intend to buy. Dyson aren't about to launch a car or a search engine. We are focused on developing technology for domestic robots for the home that logically navigate their surroundings."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Nobuyuki Hayashi