iRobot is adding vision and mapping to its robot vacuum cleaners, and says its devices could eventually recognize and manipulate objects.
By Will Knight
Why: Robots can save lives by doing jobs too dangerous for people.
Key innovation: Its small, agile robots can detect and dispose of explosive devices for the military.
The company makes robots that can move in complex environments, such as a messy living room or a battlefield, by means of a proprietary system that helps the machine respond efficiently to changing circumstances.
More than five million units of iRobot’s automated vacuum cleaner, the Roomba, have been sold since it was introduced in 2002. The company also sells robots to governments and industrial clients worldwide.
The Roomba was followed by a host of other home cleaning robots designed for single functions: one cleans pools, another cleans gutters, and another sweeps shop floors. A robot that washes floors was introduced in 2005; a smaller version is being introduced this year. The company has also had success developing small, agile robots that can perform military reconnaissance and detect and dispose of explosive devices in hostile areas. Its latest version, the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle, developed in partnership with Boeing, is light enough to be carried in a pack; its video-game-style controller makes it easy to use.
Challenges and Next Steps:
Although revenues from its government and industrial robots grew in 2010, iRobot still needs to find a product that will match the success of the original Roomba. In addition to the new floor-washing robot, the company is unveiling a new version of the Roomba that has longer battery life and a touchpad programming interface.