Why you should care
Because a pet robot might just let you take that mini-break without having to worry about your dog or cat.
I have a 7-month-old puppy who suffers from separation anxiety. Every time I leave home, I have to arrange for a dog sitter — or else everything at home gets destroyed. Usually it’s the elderly lady who cooks for me. And that means shelling out more money for every hour I’m gone. So when I learned about Laika, I wished she was available in India, where I live. Laika looked dependable. She can play with the dog, feed her treats and keep her company. You don’t need to pay her for her time — just charge her battery. Laika, you see, is a robot.
Unveiled earlier this year at CES, the world’s biggest annual tech show, Laika is among a quickly rising number of robots relying on artificial intelligence that are emerging to take care of our furry friends. The success of these machines is drawing on a rapidly growing pet products market and technologies that didn’t exist a decade ago. These robots aren’t a silver bullet fix – they can’t replace human love. But they’re poised to make pet care much easier for owners juggling their work, families and life.
Just in the past two years, at least six firms have launched robots designed to automatically pick up pet poop while you have breakfast and read the newspaper. Some among them, like Flash Robotics’ Beetl and Poop-ha from West Paw Design, which “scoops so you don’t have to stoop,” rely on thermal technology that detects poop. An automated system then picks it up. Other robots like Pooch Power Shovel work on vacuum-based suction. For cats, there’s also Litter-Robot, which detects when the cat has left the box after pooping and then cleans it out and throws the waste into a separate space, reducing the smell. They also keep track of the cat’s visits to the litter box every day — and update you via a phone app.
But if you think this is just some shitshow, think again. This past January at CES, the firm Petrics exhibited a “smart bed” that keeps track of how much time your pet spends lazing about. It’s an activity tracker and alerts you when the pet needs to go out or take a walk. The temperature of these “smart beds” changes depending on whether it’s time for the pet to snooze or stay alert.
I would definitely love to have something that can clean up my dog’s poop.
Shambhavi Saxena, New Delhi-based dog owner
Laika, developed by a French company called CamToy, is part pet-companion, part pet-toy and part pet-camera — its camera follows the animal, the robot rolls around to play and throws out occasional treats. Pebby is a smart collar and ball system — the pet can play with the ball while the collar on her allows you to track her on your cellphone, wherever you are, as long as you have network or Wi-Fi.
The ZandZone pet companion robot plays fetch, shooting out tennis balls. It also hands out treats at times set by the caregiver, and through a monitor, allows you to speak with the pet from any part of the world. Other AI-enabled automatic ball launchers include iFetch and PetSafe. For cats, there’s Mousr, a robotic toy shaped like a mouse — complete with a tail — that runs around, sensing your pet and avoiding it, as she chases the robot. By the time Mousr was launched in 2018, its parent firm Petronics already had preorders worth $200,000.
Pet security is in demand too. Whistle, another device, alerts you when your pet strays beyond safe zones – so like a human handler, it’ll accompany your pet to the garden, but the streets are off limits. Heather Wajer, Whistle Labs chief marketing officer, says their research shows pet owners really wanted to know where their pet was in their absence. The first Whistle model was just an activity monitor.
“The latest device also lets you keep track of your pet,” Wajer says. You just have to check your phone to see where your pet is.
This industry is too new to measure its size at the moment, say observers, but the market it’s targeting is growing fast. According to market research firm Packaged Facts, toy sales for dogs and cats in just the U.S. crossed $1 billion in 2016, up from $851 million in 2011. That doesn’t include any robots. And the demand for AI-enabled machines that help with pet care is global. “I would definitely love to have something that can clean up my dog’s poop,” says Shambhavi Saxena, a pet owner in New Delhi. “Or keep it company when I leave for work in the mornings.”
(The Mousr smart toy for cats)
There are hitches. Many pets don’t like machines and unless used with care these robots could increase anxiety for dogs or cats. That makes training your pet with the machine first – before leaving them alone together – a must. “Training is a must, otherwise your pet will just freak out if you don’t introduce it properly,” says Saxena. While the poop cleaners help you leave your home or meet your deadline without having to worry about picking up your pet’s litter right then, most of these robots eventually need a human to clean out the waste they’ve collected, once their storage bag is full. For that, you’ll also receive an alert by phone.
Pet trainers also caution against assuming that these robots can replace a human’s role in the pet’s life. “No doubt they seem to ease a pet parent’s problems, but dogs need their human to be near them,” says Namratha Rao, a New Delhi-based dog trainer. “A robot can never replace what a human can provide: real affection.” And these robots aren’t cheap. Laika, for instance, comes with a price tag of about $460. In a country like India, that would translate to 31,000 rupees — an unaffordable amount for most pet owners.
But pet owners are willing to spend increasing amounts on their pets — often more than on themselves. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend an average of $500 on their pets — and about $66.75 billion in all — annually, which the report says is three times more than 20 years ago. The growing demand for these robot nannies is also driving their prices — though still high — down. The first AI-enabled pet poop collector machine was built only for industrial-scale projects, at a price of $400,000. The latest smaller poop collectors meant for home use come for a thousandth of that cost at $400.
Drone firms are joining the bandwagon too. In the Netherlands, a startup called Tinki.nl has partnered with the international drone testing lab Space53 to build drones it hopes to soon deploy across the country to clean 220 million pounds of annual Dutch pet poop. Its technology also relies on heat sensing to detect poop before the drones swoop down to pick up the waste. Whether asleep at home or walking on the street, your pet might soon have eyes on it — even if you take yours away.