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

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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.”

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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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