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Intelligent Machines

RoboTriumvirate

A robotic vacuum cleaner is putting iRobot and its three founders on the map.

The female mannequin at iRobot’s headquarters in Burlington, MA, is fairly typical: tall and thin, with perfect features and fingernails painted claret red. But instead of designer clothes, she’s modeling combat fatigues and a camouflage vest with a 500-megahertz computer system embedded in it. An eyepiece is mounted over one eye, and she holds a joystick to control the accompanying PackBot, a small, tanklike robot recently deployed in military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. “She’s looking particularly stylish for a soldier,” quips Helen Greiner ‘89, SM ‘90, president and cofounder of iRobot. Thanks to PackBot and the Roomba Intelligent FloorVac, the first competitively priced robotic vacuum, iRobot is within reach of its goal: to build robots that improve people’s lives-and make money.

The iRobot triumvirate, CEO Colin Angle ‘89, SM ‘91, chief technology officer and chairman Rodney Brooks, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Greiner, formed the company in 1990. Their shared vision then, as now, was “to get robots into everyone’s hands,” Greiner says. Today iRobot develops products for the consumer, industrial, research, and military sectors. They started out in Angle’s apartment, building robots for researchers at universities, but narrow profit margins limited the company’s growth. Moving on to government research contracts for agencies such as the Office of Naval Research allowed them to hire more engineers and a chief financial officer. Their next leap forward came from partnerships with big businesses to jointly develop products. With Hasbro, for example, they developed a robotic doll called My Real Baby, which responds to its caregiver’s cues.

In 1998 they began courting venture capitalists to continue their growth and launch their own products. Since then, the privately held company has raised $28 million, including $13 million in working capital last May, for growth and expansion. “It even made the AP wire,” Greiner marvels. IRobot is an attractive investment to venture capitalists, Angle says, because it’s making money and has the potential to scale up to a larger operation.

The company has developed a number of technology demonstrators, including MicroRig, a robot that can go deep into oil bore holes, and CoWorker, an Internet-controlled robot. They even created a robot to help National Geographic explore shafts in the Great Pyramid of Giza that had not been accessed in 5,000 years. But so far, PackBot and Roomba are the company’s primary products.

PackBots gained notoriety in 2002 when the army used them in combat situations for the first time. They were still in the developmental stage, but the army successfully deployed them in Afghanistan to search caves for enemy combatants and booby traps. Feedback from soldiers allowed iRobot engineers to develop modifications that could be tested quickly, a spiral process that proved invaluable for both parties.

The PackBot is well suited for the field because it’s portable (about 18 kilograms) and tough (rated to 400 Gs, the equivalent of a three-meter drop onto concrete, Angle says). It’s equipped with a camera that transmits images back to the user via the eyepiece, and it can be tossed into buildings, mount stairs, and right itself with flippers if it’s inverted. Modular payloads and special cameras with night vision and other features can be added to tailor the PackBot to a particular mission.

Soldiers in Afghanistan were skeptical at first, Greiner says. “The guys were like, Robots? We don’t need robots. We were trained how to clear caves.’ But when you get to the cave’s mouth, and it’s dark inside, and the last person in it was a hostile combatantthey started calling for the robots.”

Last spring, a few PackBots were reassigned to Iraq. Once the U.S. combatants saw them in operation, they ordered more (iRobot won’t give out any numbers). Although Greiner won’t say what they were used for, a U.S. Army Materiel Command report indicates they were deployed in Najaf to search for enemy soldiers in a building, and to examine equipment left by Iraqis on an airfield.

As important as the PackBot may be, it’s iRobot’s foray into the home that is putting the company on the map. Greiner says she and her colleagues knew that if they could find a way to relieve folks from the drudgery of household tasks, it would be a big hit with consumers. “For 13 years, when we introduced ourselves, people would say, Can you make a robot that will clean my house?’” So the trio turned their attention to creating a robotic vacuum they could market for $200. (Competitors, they say, are priced at well over $1,000.) Roomba is a small, disc-shaped vacuum that cruises around a room, using sensors to maneuver around furniture and avoid stairs. “This idea has been around since The Jetsons. But it’s so challenging to do it right, to actually make something people will buy,” Angle says.

Indications are they did it right. Since its launch in September 2002, Roomba has been selling briskly (again, iRobot won’t disclose numbers) and won the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It was chosen as one of Oprah’s “favorite things” and was featured at the VH1 Diva Awards Show party, where celebrities wore “real divas don’t vacuum” T-shirts.

“They’re the first ones to make a commercial success of what would be considered domestic robotics,” says Craig Jennings, president of the Robotic Industries Association. “Nobody else has had a product that has had the success of Roomba. I think they hit a home run.”

IRobot’s cofounders plan to unveil a host of products for other household tasks, but they won’t discuss them yet. They don’t mince words about their vision, though. “We’re inventing the future here,” says Greiner. Angle thinks Roomba will one day be viewed as the most important robot ever built, because it is so affordable. “That changes everything. That makes the economic viability for this industry real.”

But will it do windows?

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