As iRobot and University of Washington Team Up, Robotic-Sub Competition Heats Up

6/13/08Follow @gthuang

This week, iRobot made a splash with the news that it has signed a sole licensing agreement with the University of Washington in Seattle to commercialize UW’s “Seaglider” underwater robot. The specific terms of the deal with UW TechTransfer were not disclosed, but the announcement marks the Bedford, MA-based robotics company’s first foray into the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) market.

Best known for its Roomba vacuum cleaners and military PackBots, iRobot is diving into a field that includes local competitors like Cambridge, MA-based Bluefin Robotics and Hydroid in Pocasset, MA. The company sees oceanographers and military planners as the main potential buyers of the technology—anyone who wants to monitor the properties of the ocean environment accurately and over long periods of time.

“We’ve been looking at entering the underwater space for a while,” says Helen Greiner, cofounder and chairman of iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT). She says her team was impressed by the Seaglider technology, and earlier this spring, after talking with UW, she sent MIT roboticist and iRobot CTO Rodney Brooks (an Xconomist) out to Seattle. “He bridged the gap between the academic community and the company, and was a really good ambassador,” Greiner says. “Universities exist for scientific reasons, for doing research, while at the same time they want to get their baby out into the world.”

What impressed Greiner most about the Seaglider was its efficiency and durability. Developed by researchers at the UW Applied Physics Lab and School of Oceanography, each Seaglider is about the size of a person (1.8 meters long, 52 kilograms) and is shaped like a torpedo with wings that allow it to “glide” through the water. It can travel distances of several thousand kilometers—going out to sea for six or seven months at a time—diving to depths of up to 1 kilometer and surfacing periodically to get a GPS fix or transmit data. (You can even track in real-time where the 70-odd Seagliders are deployed in the field, including one off the coast of Washington, here.)

SeagliderIt does all this with no moving external parts, which is key—most AUVs out there use propellers, which allow them to move much faster than the Seaglider’s 25 centimeters per second, but they don’t last very long in the field (just a few days, for instance). With Seaglider, “you don’t need a ship in the area to pick them up and drop them off,” says Fritz Stahr, head of the Seaglider Fabrication Center at UW, which builds the vehicles for research groups. “You deploy them and go away.”

The iRobot deal should benefit the University of Washington’s development teams in terms of reach and exposure. “We can’t build very many at the same time, so we’ve usually had a year-long backlog,” says Stahr. “So it’s always been in the university’s plan to do a license. This will allow the vehicle to see uses far beyond academia, to make it to markets heretofore unseen.”

Seagliders can be equipped with all manner of sensors to record temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, depth, and other critical ocean variables. The military is interested because, among other things, such readings can inform sonar measurements. They can also provide important clues about ocean currents, weather patterns, and climate change. That said, Seagliders probably won’t become the next big consumer gadget, though they do come in different colors (the U.S. Navy likes yellow, while universities tend to go for pink or orange).

So, what sort of splash is the news making in the New England robotics community? The firms I’ve talked to are playing it up as a good thing. The presence of several local AUV companies is “fostering healthy competition both for platform developers and component suppliers,” says David Kelly, CEO of Bluefin Robotics, which was spun out of MIT in 1997. “IRobot has a distinguished history in the robotics field overall. Their recent announcement further accentuates this strong, established base of Massachusetts companies leading the robotics industry.”

For iRobot, the UW deal represents a chance to hit the ground running (or hit the seas swimming) in terms of AUVs. Greiner says that when she helped start iRobot in 1991, commercial ground robots didn’t really exist. But with underwater robots, iRobot will address an established market—as well as a fair bit of competition. As for the technology, “I first read about [Seagliders] in the 1990s, and they were experimental,” says Greiner. “The difference now is it’s ready for prime time.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Brian

    What propels it (no moving external parts)?

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Brian: I was wondering the same thing. I found this explanation on the Web: “A Seaglider’s propulsion system may not be immediately discernible, but it is effective. It propels itself through varying its buoyancy by pumping compressible oil between high- and low-pressure chambers that together act just like a swim bladder in a fish. Pitch and roll control come courtesy of the battery pack that can be slid back and forth and swung from side to side.” See http://intellibriefs.blogspot.com/2005/10/auvs-for-mine-countermeasures-shine-at.html.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ghuang/ Gregory T. Huang

    Right, it changes its center of gravity relative to its center of buoyancy, by changing its density and weight distribution. Basically it’s meant for diving, while the shape of its wings allows it to glide horizontally.