PackBots, Roombas, and Now, Healthcare: The iRobot Story

9/12/12Follow @gthuang

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about the PackBot line is how much the impending U.S. defense budget cuts will impact the company. If iRobot can get its products in the hands of many more infantry soldiers—and find broader uses in public safety and security (monitoring radiation levels, say)—it just might be able to weather the storm. For now, the company continues to emphasize that its military-grade robots are tough, reliable, and can work together to support missions.

“We believe robotics—not just ground robotics but robotics in general—is a growth area,” says Trainer. “There is uncertainty in the defense area, but there is opportunity,” he adds. “We think robotics is on the opportunity side of that. We are diversified for just that reason.”

What’s After Roomba?

Just across the hall from the military demo robots, there’s a separate room that’s outfitted like a Martha Stewart set, complete with a kitchen island and a mock living area. This is home to iRobot’s home and consumer robot demos.

It has been 10 years since the smash-hit Roomba was released, and the robot still makes up the vast majority of the company’s home/consumer sales. But robotic vacuum cleaners are no longer novelty items, and plenty of competitors have popped up. “The mainstreaming of Roomba is very exciting,” says Angle. “Robot vacuuming is still relatively small, but it’s growing so rapidly that it’s moving and growing the whole [small appliance] industry.”

To see the latest in household-helper robots, I met with Maurice Leacock and Craig Henricksen, a couple of senior technical product managers who work with Roomba and Scooba, the floor-washing robot, respectively. (Leacock and Henricksen, who joined iRobot in early 2010, previously worked together at Bose.)

Leacock showed me the latest Roomba release, the 600 series (see left). To the untrained eye, it looks and behaves a lot like previous models. But Leacock points out some new features, including a better airflow system, improved brush design, new dirt sensors, and splashier colors. The result: this Roomba is better at picking up hair, pet fur, and lint. Is that all? “I have a couple prototypes in my house I can’t tell you about,” he jokes.

Meanwhile, the Scooba has gone through a few iterations since its 2005 debut, says Henricksen. The robot works by rolling around a room (like Roomba), squirting cleaning solution on the floor, scrubbing it, and squeegeeing and vacuuming up the dirty water. Like Roomba, its intelligence comes from sensors and software that allow it to work around obstacles and clean the whole floor without having to map out the physical space. The most recent model, which came out in March, has a simplified design (it looks more like Roomba, actually) and a longer-lasting battery.

Lastly, Jeff Karlson, a technical product manager, gave me a very earnest demo of iRobot’s gutter-cleaning robot, called the Looj. As you can imagine, a gutter is a very different environment than a floor—the layout is simpler, but the robot has to blast away leaves, dirt, and wet debris. Karlson showed me a bunch of design improvements in the latest version, released last month (the first Looj came out in 2007), including simpler color-coded controls, automatic sensing of debris, increased communication range with the user, and a lithium-ion battery so it can sit for months without a charge. One takeaway: design improvements at iRobot often have little to do with robotics per se, and a lot to do with the user interface.

My overall sense of the company’s consumer division is that Roomba was indeed groundbreaking, but it might be a one-off success. … Next Page »

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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