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SoftBank unveils AI vacuum robot for offices

Whiz seen broadening robotics business beyond Pepper

SoftBank shows off its new robotic vacuum. In the foreground on the left is the company's Pepper humanoid robot. (Photo by Minoru Satake)
SoftBank shows off its new robotic vacuum. In the foreground on the left is the company's Pepper humanoid robot. (Photo by Minoru Satake)

TOKYO -- SoftBank Group on Monday launched an office-use vacuum robot powered by artificial intelligence, envisioning the product as a key to expanding its robotics operations.

The Whiz can vacuum 1,500 sq. meters in three hours, moving along a route that a human needs to "teach" it just once. Sensors and a three-dimensional camera allow it to dodge obstacles. It will be available in Japan beginning next March for a monthly rental charge of 25,000 yen ($222), and is set to hit overseas markets by the end of fiscal 2019.

"The cleaning industry is suffering a labor shortage, and this matches the needs of the market and our technologies," said Fumihide Tomizawa, who heads SoftBank Robotics. "It's a favorite of SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son."

The robot has "infinite possibilities," with other potential applications including food service and the transportation of goods indoors or outdoors, according to the company. It features AI developed by U.S. startup Brain Corp., an investment target of the SoftBank Vision Fund. Production is being handled by a Chinese company.

The Whiz is one of the SoftBank Group's second series of robots after the Pepper talking robot. The Pepper business has been performing well and most customers renew their rental contracts, Tomizawa said, countering reports that renewals have lagged.

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