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 issue Robots: 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.
Read our special digital-only issue Robots: How they see and how they 'think'