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

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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 … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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