In a visit to iRobot’s Bedford headquarters, EE Times sat down with CEO and co-founder Colin Angle to get his take on the future of robotics. Watch the video interview, along with others in our special digital-only issueRobots: How they see and how they 'think'.
The public knows iRobot as the inventor of the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner, which to date has racked up sales of roughly 6 million units. But the MIT spinout has always set its sights on more than just lint pickers for household carpets, or even assembly-line drones for the factory floor. The company’s founding mission is to provide intelligent robots for practical applications, including machines that can conduct dangerous search, reconnaissance and bomb-disposal missions, keeping humans out of harm’s way.
In a realization of that goal, the company sent four of its robots—two iRobot 510 PackBots and two iRobot 710 Warriors—to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the
devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the country’s northern coast last spring. Six iRobot employees traveled to Japan to train employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the plant’s operator, in use of the robots to perform tasks deemed too dangerous for the humans scrambling to contain the crippled reactors.
Tepco is using the PackBots to measure radiation, temperature and oxygen levels inside the plant. The Warrior robots are equipped with powerful surveillance gear and can carry heavy loads.
Equipped with a variety of cameras and sensors, the PackBot and Warrior enable situational awareness of dangerous environments without requiring human operators to work directly in the danger zone. The PackBot is outfitted with a hazmat sensor that can detect chemical-, biological- and radiation-based toxins.
This is not the first time iRobot has providing its machines for disaster response assistance. The PackBot was used at the World Trade Center in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, and the iRobot Seaglider unmanned underwater vehicle was used to detect underwater oil after the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.
IRobot was founded in 1990 when Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticists Colin Angle and Helen Greiner teamed up with their professor, Rodney Brooks, with the vision of making practical robots a reality. Last year, the publicly traded company generated more than $400 million in revenue and employed more than 600 robotics professionals, including mechanical, electrical and software engineers and related support staff.
Headquartered in Bedford, Mass., iRobot also has offices in California, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, China (including an office in Hong Kong), France, India and the United Kingdom.
Recently, the company—whose top-selling markets for its consumer products are in Japan and Europe—announced it was expanding into Latin America, a market that Angle, the company’s chairman and CEO, estimates could be worth $200 million a year for vacuum cleaners selling at above $200. Next year, iRobot expects to launch its consumer line in China.
I would think that an elderly service robot would be a major success. Given the numbers of our aging population and our desire to remain independent as long as possible. I would suggest that there are a number of tasks that could be performed by a robot that would be a significant help in a home setting. I wonder if they are already working on this?
The robotics hardware and sensors have come down tremendously in cost, to the point where they are well within the reach of hobbyists. Between that and the military applications, robotics software to do interesting things is becoming available. I judged a contest at the Del Mar Fair where Jr High kids were building Lego robots and making them do things. The High Scholl kids were building them from scratch. These kids are growing up programming robots just like my generation programmed microcomputers. That's what it takes to make this happen.
I believe Colin Angle's and iRobot's vision is to entrust robots with "skills" that would make them "helpers" in everyday life: to enable the handicapped and the elderly to control robots to bring them the correct medicine from another room or to perform other mundane chores around the house. Today it is only a start but in time (in Colin Angle's estimation--five years) robots will be available as "helpers" humans can rely on.
So Nic, you said that they do not want just to sell vacuum cleaners...will there be smart robotic home appliances in the future or there will be only military applications due to high costs? Can this be teamed up with let's say smart grid concept to save electricity.
pixies: you hit the nail on the head. In fact their development platform shown in this video multiple iPads are being used as robot controllers. iRobot would not confirm that they are working with Apple to incorporate its tablets as "eyes" and "ears" of roving bots in living quarters.
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