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

9/12/12Follow @gthuang

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It’s hard to imagine another home robot generating as much customer zeal—until it does, of course. Roomba has the distinction of being the world’s first practical home robot, the company says. It was fun as a novelty item, but it also solved a real-world problem—and solved it well. So it’s safe to say the folks at iRobot will continue to look for problems that robots can solve, rather than build robots for their own sake. That’s an important overarching theme behind the company’s successes to date.

“While others were designing robots first, then looking around for applications or making cool headline-grabbing demos, iRobot used robotic technology to fulfill real user needs,” says Helen Greiner, the iRobot co-founder who stepped down as chairman in 2008 and now leads CyPhy Works. “To keep growing for another 20 years, iRobot needs more products that drive revenue like Roomba and PackBot,” she says.

The Inflatables

Of course, if we’re talking 20 years from now, it really is all about the robots.

For that, we turn to Chris Jones, research program manager at iRobot. Jones doesn’t look like Morgan Freeman from the Dark Knight movies (head of R&D for Wayne Enterprises, AKA Batman’s toys), but that’s basically who he is. He’s charged with keeping the company ahead of the technology curve—no small task in robotics. To that end, his team gets funding from high-powered places like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to pursue high-risk, high-reward experiments.

The big research themes iRobot is pursuing, Jones says, include making robots more autonomous, easier to use, and collaborative (both with humans and other robots). On a lab bench he shows me a prototype of a large, three-fingered robot hand, developed in tandem with researchers at U. Penn and U-Mass Amherst. Its fingers have compliance in their joints—they bend and flex instead of being rigid—so the robot can pick up items ranging in size from a ball bearing to a basketball without having its movements be so precisely guided by a computer; the fingers naturally settle into positions of best contact with the object, making it potentially more reliable and also safer in the field.

The company’s research in robotic dexterity could pay off in areas like home robots that can safely open doors (using the doorknob) or PackBot-type robots that can perform more intricate tasks such as picking up and manipulating small, delicate objects.

I’ve seen plenty of robotic hands in my time, but the next thing Jones showed me I had never seen before: an inflatable robot arm (see photo). The AIR arm, as it’s called—for Advanced Inflatable Robot—is attached to a PackBot-like moving platform and can lift several times its half-pound weight with its two-fingered pincer grip (see video). That’s an improvement in strength-to-weight performance as compared to most metallic robot arms. One advantage is that this arm can be ported around while deflated—it’s light and doesn’t take up much space—and then pumped up to whatever air pressure is suitable for the job. (The actuator technology in the arm is also pneumatic.) DARPA recently awarded iRobot a $625,000 contract to continue developing this concept.

Inflatable robots—and robotics with some inflatable components—is an emerging research field, with efforts at top universities such as Carnegie Mellon. iRobot is even experimenting with … 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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