We recently got a chance to chat with Helen Griener, Cofounder and Chairman of iRobot (best known for the Roomba Robot Vacuum). With the launch of new Roomba Discovery, the PackBots as well as I, Robot the movie, we had a few questions she was gracious enough to answer for us.
Helen was named the Ernst and Young New England Entrepreneur of the Year for 2003 (with iRobot co-founder Colin Angle). She has also been honored as a Technology Review Magazine "Innovator for the Next Century," invited to the World Economic Forums as a Global Leader of Tomorrow, and has been awarded the prestigious DEMO God Award at the DEMO Conference. Her 15 years of experience in robotic technology includes work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science, both from MIT.
Needless to say, we have a slight crush.
First up- name, rank, serial number?
Chairman and Cofounder
Could you tell us how iRobot Corporation was founded?
Colin, Rod and I founded iRobot out of MIT after Colin and I graduated (in 1990). The vision has always been to make robots that touch people's lives everyday and create a robotics industry. The plan has evolved over time by creating business model around the state of technology, the state of capitalization, and the state of manufacturing capability that existed. We have built robots that go deep into the bore of oil wells, toys that were marketed by Hasbro, museum displays, a prototype planetary explorer, a legged robot for underwater mines, a robotic fish, a swarm of 100 robots, and a robot that explored shafts in the great pyramid.
What's your daily schedule like at iRobot now?
Crazy, but always interesting.
What are some interesting things about the Roomba in general, and what are the new features folks should be excited about with the new Discovery Roomba?
The most interesting thing about is its ability to get around in any home on its own and clean well. This was thought to be impossible at such a low cost. So the combination of very inexpensive sensors made effective by very clever design, the multithreaded operating system running on very a very small microprocessor, and the really low power sweeper/vac. Also, The Discovery has a 16-bit microprocessor and flash memory.
The Discoveries make a lot of improvement in the cleaning, lifetime, quick charge, and dirt storage, but the most compelling are the new robotic features. These guys actually know when they are picking up dirt and change the cleaning pattern to pick it up more efficiently. The coolest though is the home base station. The robot actually knows it is running low on juice and starts looking for its charger. When it sees the infrared lobes that the base station transmits, it gets lined up, then like under control of a tractor beam it heads into the dock and starts a recharging cycle. The first model that has this cost 249.99 but the other new model are compatible with the recharger accessory, which can be bought separately.
PackBot is different division of iRobot, can you tell us about what these robots are intended for?
Government and Industrial Robotics and Consumer Robotics are our division names. iRobot's PackBot is the new standard in unmanned reconnaissance and bomb disposal. It is a lightweight, rugged robot that can be carried and deployed by a single soldier. PackBot offers unprecedented mobility and durability-it can be thrown into a building through a window, climb stairs, drop 20 feet and still function properly. The robot was originally developed under the Tactical Mobile Robotics program, which was sponsored by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Designed as a versatile payload carrier, iRobot has added reconnaissance payloads with pan/tilt head and night vision, Chem/gas/rad payloads, and a bomb disposal (EOD) payloads.
The PackBot EOD has been used on thousands of bomb disposal missions and we are very proud of its life saving function. The one pictured was sent back to us from Iraq for analysis after a bomb detonated. In most missions, the PackBot EOD returns safely, but in the case where it is blown up, better a robot than a soldier. A geek aside: the PackBot is running a Linux OS with
iRobot's Aware robot control software.
Pictured: PackBot #129. Killed In Action. April 8, 2004 Iraq. Click here for a larger view.
What was the relationship between iRobot and I, Robot the movie starring Will Smith?
The name iRobot comes from a common source, the Asimov I, Robot short stories. We also like it because it can be "intelligent" robot or "I" Robot (i.e. the personal combined with the technology).
We have done some joint promotions with the 20th Century Fox folks and I have been asked to talk about the state of the art in robotics at movie screenings. Colin Rod and I were all interviewed for the DVD version.
What did you think of the movie? Would you say it's accurate in terms of where robotics is heading?
I loved the movie. It kept true to the Asimovian principles and many scenes described in the book, but did not just follow any one story (which would have not made a summer block buster). The robot was a compelling character. (see final question)
Besides iRobot Corporation, what robotic projects or robot firms have you been impressed with?
Well, Rod's work at MIT on humanoids is very compelling; I just got the tour last week. And the demo humanoid, cardea, etc. Manuela at CMU has made great progress using robot soccer as a challenge (with Aibos) on robot cooperation, machine vision, and strategy. Acroname just came out with a line of fairly inexpensive robots for hobbyists.
For anyone interested in robotics, what resources or conferences are coming up that you would suggest?
THE ROBONEXUS> see www.robotnexus.com
For the first time ever the US robotic community (led by a media firm called Robotic Trends) is putting on a show to rival the Japanese robot shows like Robodex.
RoboNexus takes the best qualities of academic and business development events, consumer electronics and toy mega events, user group meetings and robotic competitions, and combines them into a single event.