Anyone who knows what dust looks like has probably wished for some bee-like helpers who could just zip around the house to make it magically clean. Or perhaps gel that rolls around, collects all the dirt, and returns to a container. Designers are on it.

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New conceptual designs are emerging that make the Roomba look old school and the Jetsons feel more archaic than ever. One is a cleaning system called Mab that involves hundreds of tiny robots that fly around the house. Another, called Jell Balls, involves gel-covered balls that emerge from a special container. The designs are part of an annual Electrolux Design Lab contest that challenged students worldwide to come up with inventions for “inspired urban living.”

In the Effortless Cleaning category — the other two are Natural Air and Social Cooking — semifinalists include Colombian industrial design student Adrian Perez Zapata’s Mab concept. He describes the automated cleaning system as consisting of hundreds of mini-robots that will clean all surfaces. Mab would work with an in-home network and an initial charge. It scans the home and sends mini robots to do autonomous cleaning runs in “fast,” “normal” or “exhaustive” modes, using water and cleaning agents as they go.

Another semifinalist of note comes from Korean Samaung Art and Design Institute student Juan Lee. He describes the Jell Balls design as a new cleaner appliance that hoovers up all the dust using the principle of gel surface tension. The main robotic appliance would contain eight small, round robotic gel balls that roll out of the main body, collect dirt and return to the main body where the dust is deposited in a bag. Lee thinks this could work well on damp problem areas in the bathroom and kitchen.

I’m fully aware that these concepts are out there and unlikely to be on the store shelves any time soon. But they both contain very real elements. As PopSci’s Colin Lecher pointed out, the balls and the gel already exist, and so does a similar remote-controlled robotic ball called Sphero. As insane as Mab’s swarm cleaner sounds, IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman mentioned the Robobees project under way at Harvard.

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Next month the contest finalists will be chosen, with a top prize of 5,000 euros (nearly $6,700) and a six-month paid internship at an Electrolux Global Design Center. Wonder if the winner will be required to do any cleaning around the place. Hey, it’s just some extra motivation to make a working prototype.

Image: The conceptual Mab automated cleaning system employs miniature flying robots. Credit: Adrian Perez Zapata via Electrolux Design Lab