George Jetson would be ecstatic. First there was a robotic lawn mower. Then a robotic vacuum. Now comes the latest gizmo for dreary domestic duties: a robotic iron.

A team of mechanical engineers at King’s College London is developing the world’s first automatic ironing machine. The compact machine will be able to fold as well as iron clothes. With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (Swindon, UK), Jian Dai and his colleagues plan to create a prototype within 4 years.

Dai says the complex and unpredictable nature of ironing will be challenging to automate. Among other tasks, the device will have to avoid the common pitfall of burning a hole in clothing.

"The robot needs to know what type of garment it is ironing, so it will have to include some kind of sensor that allows it to recognize what it is dealing with and how to treat it," says Dai.

Robotic grippers will be used to manipulate clothes for key processes such as unfolding, ironing and refolding. Bar-coded tags similar to the washing instructions already sewn into clothes may be attached to garments to give the robot instructions.

The researchers are currently creating a set of classifications for various types of clothing and materials. They hope to develop a set of "ironing rules" that a robotic system would follow.