iRobot CEO Colin Angle talks about the future of robotics

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Early in Colin Angle’s blogger round-table today, he recounted the story of Packbot, their first military robot. iRobot sent a team to Afghanistan in 2002 where they showed soldiers how to use and manage the new Packbot robot, a self-righting, remote controlled surveillance bot designed to enter a room or cave so soldiers don’t have to.

The soldiers complained about using “toys” in the field, saying that they were specially trained to clear caves. This went on until they were faced with the entrance to a dark cave in the mountains where they suddenly discovered that sending a robot into the darkness was far better than sending in a soldier. It was this point, the “cave mouth epiphany” that convinced the Army that robots are a way around the asymmetric warfare that has become the norm for today’s conflicts.

Angle talks like PhD and doesn’t look like a roboticist. He is trim, neat, and well-spoken and his vision for iRobot doesn’t involve steel, motors, and sensors but intelligently programmed helper devices that can improve and even save our lives.

Angle told us that robotics is hard. To make a seemingly intelligent, autonomous floor sweeper took iRobot over 10 years. Their work in autonomous cleaning robot allowed iRobot to look at the sweeping, and later washing, problem with some training and experience.

Angle foresees that robots will soon become omnipresent and amazingly useful in aging populations. Devices like the Connector create a “mobile physical presence” for nurses and caregivers to stop in to “visit” the elderly virtually, reminding folks to take their medicines and even to eat.

His main point, that robots will soon do the jobs we don’t want to or can’t do, is a quite cleary coming to pass. I asked him if there was a “cave mouth epiphany” in the home robotics industry and he shook his head. “We’ve sold 2.5 million robots, but that’s 1 to 2% of market penetration. The digerati love robots, but our real audience is middle American homemakers.” Looking at his Scuba, Looj, and Roomba, it’s clear that his audience is missing out and when the finally see the value of a cleaning robot, the cave mouth epiphany is right around the corner.

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