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

9/12/12Follow @gthuang

Robots are in the air these days. They are also quite literally on the ground, in the water, and in many homes, businesses, warehouses, and manufacturing facilities. And they are making lots of money for their creators—something that would have been hard to believe just a few years ago.

One company, arguably, has done more than any other to bring robots to the business mainstream. Bedford, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) is the godfather of many of today’s robotics firms, and an epicenter of the commercial robotics industry in Boston, as well as nationally and worldwide.

After 22 years in operation—the last seven as a publicly traded company—iRobot’s impact is all around us. The company’s home robots (including the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which debuted in 2002) have sold more than 8 million units. The firm’s military robots, such as the PackBot, are famous for aiding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for helping out in disaster sites such as Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. The robot that first entered the Aurora, CO, shooter’s booby-trapped apartment in July was a PackBot (this fact wasn’t widely publicized). The robot that detected key underwater pools of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, thereby leading to a more comprehensive cleanup after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, was an iRobot Seaglider. And so on.

What’s more, the company’s DNA can be found in many of the newer crop of startups around town. Rodney Brooks, the iRobot co-founder and longtime MIT professor, now leads Rethink Robotics, which is trying to reinvent U.S. manufacturing via safe, reliable, and cheap programmable robots. Helen Greiner, another iRobot co-founder and former chairman, is now CEO of CyPhy Works, a stealthy company working on flying robots (unmanned aerial vehicles). Former iRobot employees Joe Jones and Paul Sandin co-founded Harvest Automation, which is developing robots to perform manual labor, starting with agricultural applications in shrub farming. (We’ll hear from some of these folks below.)

It’s safe to say iRobot’s presence has helped create a thriving business community of roboticists that also includes the founders of area companies such as Boston Dynamics (known for its legged military robots and software), Kiva Systems (bought by Amazon for $775 million earlier this year), and Bluefin Robotics (another MIT spinout, now part of Battelle). And that has helped to make Boston the envy of Silicon Valley and other regions hoping to build a base of expertise in robotics.

Yet the 600-person company now finds itself at a crossroads. With massive uncertainty around the defense budget impacting its projected sales in a big way, iRobot has beefed up in other potential growth areas, most notably healthcare. And it has rededicated itself to innovative product lines for its consumer and home robots, while it also works on technologies that could come to fruition much further down the road.

How does the company view its broader mission and legacy? “When we started the business, we thought robots were cool,” says Colin Angle, the firm’s co-founder and CEO (see photo). “We thought that there was a neat business in building robotic products. I don’t think we felt the importance of the mission.” But over the years, the company learned that “it needs to be business driven and not technology driven,” Angle says. “So much of the work that we need to do as an industry is finding the places where the technology can actually create sufficient value to drive viable businesses.” As for what lies ahead, he says, “Predicting the impact on the future is quite hard, but we have a mission to continue to drive and build the industry. I will tell you, rarely is it a boring day.” (You can read a detailed Q&A with Colin Angle on his lessons learned and challenges as leader of iRobot.)

On a recent visit to the company’s headquarters, I saw a pretty wide cross-section of what iRobot is working on. I was impressed by the diversity of robot designs in progress, even within the same product line. I saw next-generation Roombas and other home helper robots; PackBots and military-grade robots of every size and weight; a brand new remote-presence healthcare robot for use in hospitals; and some wacky but very cool-looking inflatable robots and dexterous robotic hands (still in the experimental stage). Yes, I said inflatable robots.

The question is, will it all be enough to keep iRobot growing for another 20 years? And what lessons does the firm hold for the younger generation of robotics companies?

A First Look

My tour began with some demos from Tim Trainer, iRobot’s vice president of product management in the company’s defense and security business unit. (Trainer, a longtime U.S. Navy executive, was interim general manager of the unit for two years, until last month.) One of the more surprising things is how many different models of PackBot-like robots exist. You might think there are just a couple types of gizmos that can be controlled by soldiers to detect and defuse roadside bombs and perform other life-and-death functions. Not so.

iRobot's Tim Trainer with FirstLook robot

There’s a 60-pound model (the classic PackBot), a 30-pound model (called SUGV, for Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle), a five-pound mini-robot that can be tossed through windows or around corners (FirstLook—see photo, left, with Trainer), and big boys upwards of 350 pounds with a powerful robotic arm and other hardware attached (Warrior). All can carry cameras, sensors, and radio communications, run on batteries, and get around on tank-like treads. They are designed to be tele-operated, using a gaming-style controller and display, by soldiers, first responders, and bomb technicians. Besides combating explosives and other lethal threats, the robots (FirstLook in particular) can be used to create a mesh network for communications—to cover a large perimeter, for example, or to map out an entire building.

But the biggest advances in the past year or two have been made under the hood. The company’s engineers have upgraded the robots’ intelligence software and operating system, called Aware 2, so that the machines can do things like right themselves when they’re flipped upside down, and retrace their steps when they lose line-of-sight communications with their operator. Aware 2 is the company’s biggest software upgrade in the past five years, Trainer says.

It’s hard to say exactly how many lives have been saved by PackBot and its cousins over the years, but a few thousand seems like a reasonable estimate. The big challenge, technically, remains autonomy—getting the robots to do more on their own without being remotely controlled. For example, Trainer envisions a soldier putting an iRobot SUGV into a building and telling it to clear the building of any explosives and then come out and report what it has done. Down the road, that level of autonomy could make armed forces “more effective,” Trainer says, by helping them “clear a larger area with fewer people.”

From a business perspective, the big question 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. 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 a six-legged running robot composed of inflatable segments (another DARPA-funded project). Whether it will all pay off for the company remains to be seen, but the technical advantages in terms of weight, compactness, strength, safety, and cost are promising, says Jones.

Healthcare and Beyond

That brings us to the question of what will pay off for iRobot—and how soon. In an upstairs lounge, Angle, the CEO, proudly introduced me to the company’s newest class of robot: RP-VITA (see photo with Angle, below). Its name stands for “Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant.” It’s person-sized, with a flat-screen monitor for a head, a touchscreen interface on its chest, and a cream-colored body, and it moves around on wheels. What it’s capable of is fairly astounding—and could hold the key to iRobot’s future.

RP-VITA, developed in partnership with InTouch Health, is designed to work in hospitals as an extension—and augmentation—of doctors and nurses. A doctor in another location can use an iPad to maneuver the robot around a clinic and see patients remotely, via two high-definition cameras and a microphone/speaker system (all in the monitor). The patient can see the doctor’s face on the monitor as he or she talks to the patient. The doctor can use the robot to shine a laser pointer on the patient’s body, while the doc asks things like, “Does it hurt here?” and can zoom in on regions of interest (up to 30x magnification). In principle, the physician could get quick access to the patient’s vital signs, health records, and medical history, all electronically, and also collaborate with other doctors and caretakers.

One potential use case would be a small clinic admitting a stroke patient who needs to be assessed quickly by a remote specialist; the clinic could get the specialist on the horn, set up the robot to be his or her telepresence with the patient, and get the right diagnosis by observing the patient. The technology fits into a “holistic patient care system to allow more expertise with the right information to be brought to bear at the right time against an array of patients that need that care,” says Angle. “It’s not whoever’s in the building, it’s whoever in the world is the most appropriate person or team to treat you when you need it. That’s the big idea as far as how this particular system will create value.”

What’s more, Angle argues that RP-VITA could address some of the big issues of healthcare costs and quality by eventually being used in people’s homes instead of just hospitals. “This type of technology ultimately will allow doctors and nurses to make house calls in a cost-effective fashion,” he says. “Which will mean that you go to the hospital only if there’s something that only can be treated in the hospital.” He says this could have “massive impact on the cost of care and quality of care.”

A number of other companies (most are in California) are pursuing telepresence robots for applications in the working world. In addition to iRobot’s partner, InTouch Health, there are competitors like Anybots, Suitable Technologies (a spinoff of Willow Garage), and Double Robotics (which graduated from the Y Combinator startup program last month).

Skeptics I’ve talked to wonder if a healthcare robot might not be the right telepresence product in terms of price or practicality. It’s a great concept, but is iRobot too far ahead of the adoption curve here? Angle dismisses that notion. “I think the curve is there right now if the products and technology and price points all line up,” he says. “So, together with our partners, we’re on a path to create the systems required to deliver that future.” Only a handful of RP-VITA robots have been built so far, but, pending FDA approval, clinics will be able to lease one for $4,000 to $6,000 a month.

How quickly could this impact the company’s bottom line? Angle is cautious but optimistic. “It’s going to take a little while. We’ll do between $465 and $485 million [in revenue] this year. It’s going to take a little bit in order to materially move that number with a new-to-the-world product. But we think it will be material next year, and we think it will be very, very important over the next few years,” he says. “I think we’re going to trace back to this system, right here, as being incredibly important in all of the new economic opportunities that navigating, mapping robots are going to create for the world.”

Indeed, Angle seems quite jazzed by the capabilities of the new robot. To an outside observer, its navigation system and user interface are what jump out at you—the robot zips around the room, and if you step in front of it, it stops abruptly and goes around you. Angle says he could imagine this type of machine playing the role of a robotic butler in a home—it could interact with you and tell other robots (like Roomba) what to do.

Toward the end of my visit, I asked Angle about his biggest lesson learned over the years, and a little more about his company’s impact on the field. A robotics venture, he says, “is a complete disaster and waste of money if you’re just doing it to create a cool demonstration. Whatever you do, you want to look at the business underpinnings.” With that in mind, the industry has changed a lot since iRobot’s founding in 1990. “If you look at the robotics landscape today,” he says, “it’s much richer and valuable robot businesses, because more and more people are approaching it from the perspective of [here’s a] problem—solve with robot technology—as opposed to, ‘Woo-hoo, look at my walking robot.’”

Angle isn’t taking credit for all of the change, of course. But perhaps the best summary of iRobot’s legacy comes from a former employee, a 15-year veteran of the company (and co-inventor of Roomba): “The strategy of treating a robot as a product, that’s the right strategy. That wasn’t prevalent among roboticists before iRobot,” says Joe Jones, the co-founder of Harvest Automation. “iRobot gave a lot of people the confidence to try robotics. You can build a robot, and you can make money at it.”

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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