The Early Years

Genghis

Rod Brooks, Colin Angle and Helen Greiner founded iRobot in 1990. These Massachusetts Institute of Technology associates had a vision of robots beyond academia and industry, dreaming of practical applications that would change the world. The company, first called IS Robotics, was built on a business plan of space exploration by robots. A successful mission could lead to new technologies and new ventures; it was hoped that the story would be an inspiring film. We worked with NASA and other organizations to develop a robot for lunar exploration that was successfully tested and held great promise. Soon, it seemed, IS Robotics robots would be showing the next generation of kids that anything was possible. The original business plan was well underway when we began to win government and industry contracts. It became clear that these funded lines of research were more profitable, more practical and more technically compelling, so we shifted focus to innovative work that would make an immediate difference in people's lives.

The company grew. We moved to real office space and went from four employees to ten. Then to 20. We doubled our workforce again. And again. We now were working on multiple contracts, developing new technologies and were attracting attention from media around the world. In 2000 we merged with Real World Interface, a New Hampshire based robotics company, and changed our name to iRobot. We knew our mission and were on our way.

Lessons Learned

MicroRig

Striving for innovation means being willing to take risks and try things that may not bear immediate fruit. It means you're willing to learn from experience, even when those experiences may not have the outcomes you expected. While products like MicroRig never made it to the market and My Real Baby was on store shelves for less than two years, developing and marketing these products taught us a great deal. Our collaborations with organizations such as National Geographic let us design the right robot for our customers and to use robots in new ways. We don't regard any of these ventures as failures; rather they were an opportunity to learn about new markets, new technologies, new business models and to gain new insight into what customers really want from a robot.

iRobot PackBot®

When your mission statement says you will "Change the World" you've given yourself something pretty substantial to live up to. iRobot has been finding ways to change the world, customer by customer, robot by robot, since our early years.

In response to a 1997 U.S. Government grant we began work on robots that would eventually be used to search for survivors following the attacks on the World Trade Centers and U.S. Pentagon on September 11th 2001. These robots would subsequently help keep American warfighters safe in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the most successful battle-tested robots in the world, the iRobot 510 PackBot performs bomb disposal and other dangerous missions for warfighters and first responders. Because these highly versatile robots can undertake a variety of missions, one robot can help in many ways. Over 3,500 510 PackBots are currently deployed, keeping warfighters and first responders out of harm's way. When we say we're going to "Change the World" we mean it, whether we're providing the right technology at the right time or by saving lives.

iRobot Roomba®


In 1997 iRobot was a very busy place with a variety of consumer, government and research endeavors. For example, we were working on a large cleaning robot for SC Johnson Wax that would eventually be released as the AutoCleaner. We were also developing toys with low-cost parts. As the AutoCleaner project wound down, two of the engineers from the design team became interested in affordable cleaning robots for home use. Using our understanding of cleaning and low-cost manufacturing, they built a proof-of-concept robot to prove that this was a fruitful line of research. A team was assembled to develop the world's first affordable home floor cleaning robot.

It was a long journey. Over the five years from prototype to product, the robot that became iRobot Roomba changed considerably. After many long nights and a lot of hard work, iRobot Roomba, the world's first affordable home vacuum cleaning robot, was introduced on September 22, 2002 to widespread public acclaim. We continue to improve iRobot Roomba and have now sold over 5 million home cleaning robots. Customers continue to rave about iRobot Roomba while we continue to "Change the World" by "Delivering Great Products."

Product Development

You've got to
build it to build it

Why reinvent the wheel? iRobot is committed to building the best robots in the world by using what we know: We build on our successes, we've learned from our failures and we incorporate new technology as it becomes available. We strive to make our robots component based, so one approach can be used in several different products. This development model means we are continuously adding to our base of knowledge, building on what we know and learning how to make things better without having to build things from scratch. It's more cost and time effective, and means we can spend more time changing the world with robots and less time solving last year's problem all
over again.

Building the Future

iRobot is building the future. We are listening to our customers and building the products they need. We are developing new and innovative platforms. We are making our existing and future robots easier to use and more adaptable with Aware©2 cross-platform software. We are exploring new morphologies for robots, so they can go places where they've never gone before. We are looking for new ways that robots can help people. We are exploring opportunities for robots to become more software rich, so we can leverage interactive software applications on mobile, robotic platforms.

We innovate where needed, acquire when appropriate and invent solutions throughout our product development process. We are helping people with bits as well as atoms.

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Genghis

From our earliest years iRobot has been exploring behavioral models of robot programming. This means that the robot senses what's in its environment and responds to it on an as-needed basis. It isn't trying to make complicated decisions from many pieces of data, it's only trying to figure out what
comes next.

Behavioral models of robot intelligence led to Genghis designed for exploration on other planets, a variety of mine-detecting robots and MicroRig, designed for data collection in oil wells. While none of these robots ultimately became products, we learned a great deal about how robots interact with the world and people.

Left to right: Genghis, MicroRig, Ariel

Grendel - lunar rover

Grendel was an early vision for IS Robotics. This speculative robot design was very small and could fit into an ACAT container. ACAT containers were intended to be payloads in space exploration. When the ACAT landed Grendel would self-eject and could explore the planet's surface via telepresence control. Technology developed by iRobot has subsequently been used by NASA in Mars exploration. was an early vision for IS Robotics. This speculative robot design was very small and could fit into an ACAT container. ACAT containers were intended to be payloads in space exploration. When the ACAT landed Grendel would self-eject and could explore the planet's surface via telepresence control. Technology developed by iRobot has subsequently been used by NASA in Mars exploration.

Left to right:
Grendel, Atilla in Scientific American

Many robots, many uses

This iRobot publicity video documents our first decade of robots, including; Attila walking on varied terrain; Genghis at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; Grendel in a simulated space flight and planetary exploration scenario; Ariel, a mine-hunting robot based on biological models; DARTS, a robot designed to move like a fish; the autonomous robotic tour guide Minerva; an early model of PackBot undergoing tests; MicroRig exploring an active oil well; My Real Baby during play tests with kids; the Wild Velociraptor, an experimental toy design with emotionally appropriate responses; SWARM, small robots that act cooperatively; the UGCV, a prototype for a large autonomous robot; and the iRobot LE, an early remote telepresence platform.

Left to right:
Hermes, Robotic Raptor, Swarm

MicroRig

iRobot believes it's better to send robots into places too dull, dirty or dangerous for people. In the late 1990s we partnered with several oil companies to develop a fully autonomous robot to collect data from functioning land-based oil wells. This was our first industrial partnership. At the time, an oil well had to be shut down before it could be inspected; the robot we developed could travel against the flow of oil and collect real-time data in a functioning well. While this project eventually was abandoned, we learned a great deal about autonomous function in hostile environments, battery life management, data collection and measurement.

Left to right:
MicroRig lowered into test oil well
MicroRig emerges from test well with simulated flow
Concept illustration

My Real Baby

Our first consumer product was My Real Baby. Born out of collaboration with the toy industry, My Real Baby was covered with a web of invisible sensors that allowed her to detect how she was being played with. Without buttons or switches, she knew if she was being hugged, tickled, burped or changed and she responded in emotionally appropriate ways - laughing, crying, smiling, burping, etc. Kids loved her. Out of this collaboration we began to learn about low-cost manufacturing and how to make products that were truly user-friendly.

National Geographic Pyramid Rover

How often do you get to see the most modern technology explore one of humanity's most ancient monuments, live on worldwide television? In 2002 iRobot was invited to build a robot to explore one of the tunnels in the Great Pyramid at Giza. This one-of-a-kind robot, based on PackBot and MicroRig, had to overcome challenging surroundings, ongoing design changes and the pressure to perform in front of the camera. The exploration was broadcast
live worldwide. Our robot added to scientific knowledge of this wonder
of the world.

Left to right:
Engineer tweaks the robot, The secret shaft,
Pyramid Rover, The robot enters the secret shaft

Early testing

In 1997 iRobot was one of several organizations invited to present a paper about robots that could be used in urban combat to the U.S. Department of Defense. Of all the presenting organizations, we were the only one that not only wrote a paper; we brought along a functioning proof-of-concept robot. Shortly thereafter iRobot was granted a contract to develop a line of research robots that could be used in urban combat. At about the same time we were asked by the British Ministry of Defense to work on robots that could be used in explosive ordnance detection and disposal. These two lines of research eventually merged into the PackBot program.

Left to right:
Urban robot in the lab,
iRobot 500 PackBot Explorer

September 11th, 2001

On the morning of September 11, 2001, horrified iRobot employees watched live television as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York City and the Pentagon unfolded. Millions around the world watched these events in real time. Around 10:30am EST we were called by the U.S. government PackBot project manager, who asked if we could prepare robots and engineers to help with search and rescue work in New York City. By 4:00pm iRobot engineers and robots were on the road to New York. By 10:00pm they were on the ground, prepared to assist rescue workers. This was the first time robots were deployed in a large scale disaster scenario. While the destruction was such that few survivors were found, iRobot robots kept search and rescue workers safer by going into structurally unsound buildings to look for survivors. It's better to send in a robot.

September 11th, 2001

Deployed Robots

By the spring of 2002 our robots were on the ground in Afghanistan, where they explored Taliban hiding places and kept US soldiers out of harm's way. Our robots continue to keep our soldiers safer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pictured below, a robot nicknamed "Scooby Doo" by its Explosive Ordnance Disposal team was destroyed in action in Iraq while investigating a roadside bomb. Prior to its destruction, Scooby Doo had investigated and destroyed 23 roadside devices, vehicle borne incendiary devices and unexploded bombs.

Scooby Doo: IED detection and disposal

AutoCleaner

In the mid-1990s iRobot collaborated with SC Johnson Wax to develop a large cleaning robot. This was our first significant, externally funded project, the biggest contract to date. This led to the first major hiring boom in iRobot history, more than doubling the size of the company within a year. We developed the AutoCleaner, a large, man-guided robot that could sweep, wax and buff in one pass. Designed for use in big-box stores, it decreased man-hours required to clean the facility each night. This product taught us a great deal about cleaning, knowledge we would then apply to the development of Roomba.

Left to right:
Early navigation platform,
Early cleaning prototype,
The "old" way

9 months to go

Over the five years of development from prototype to product, the robot that was to become iRobot Roomba changed considerably. The original cleaning robot was designed to use electro-static cleaning cloths. It had no vacuum. It was only after home testing months before tooling was to begin that the team realized a vacuum was essential; potential customers stated they wouldn't buy a floor cleaning robot if it didn't have a vacuum. This redesign required the invention of a new kind of vacuum, an improved power system and a new filtration system. It was an impressive technical achievement, made more so when you consider that this was nine months before we were scheduled to go into production. Nine months, to essentially redesign the robot from top
to bottom.

Left to right:
DustPuppy, CAD models, The original iRobot Roomba

Media Acclaim

"While Sony's Aibo and similar toys proved that consumers want robots, Roomba may be the first that they actually need."
Technology Review, October 2002

"Unlike nature, the media adores a vacuum. Specifically, the media adores Colin Angle's vacuum, Roomba, a sleek silver saucer that last autumn whirred its way onto the year's best-products list of Time,
Business Week, and USA Today, among others."
Inc. Magazine, July 2003

"Speaking of vrooming, lately it seems like everybody we know is obsessed with the Roomba Robotic Floorvac, a Jetsons-style automatic vacuum that harnesses 'intelligent navigation technology' to clean floors without human direction."
ELLE - August 2003

Early success, ongoing redesign

iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaning robot was released in September 2002 to widespread public acclaim. It was so successful that our first production run came within a few hundred units of selling out. Subsequent models have incorporated customer suggestions and new technologies such as dirt detection and improved battery technology. We believe that listening to the customer and being open to suggestions helps us find ways to make our robots better.

Roomba through the years

From vacuuming to floor washing

iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaning robot is round so it won't get stuck in an ordinary home landscape. It navigates using patented localized behavioral models, based on the work we did when the company first started. When customers began to ask for a floor washing robot, we were able to quickly develop iRobot Scooba floor washing robot using what we'd already learned from iRobot Roomba - how to navigate around a home and how to not
get stuck.

Left to right:
Roomba 500 development,
iRobot Roomba 560, iRobot Scooba,
Scooba ID foam model

Flippers and tracks

iRobot PackBot tracks with flippers for enhanced mobility. iRobot Warrior is a much larger tracked robot with flippers, giving it tremendous mobility while it carries heavy payloads. And the iRobot Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) is a much smaller tracked robot with flippers, making it highly mobile at the same time that it is agile and easily transportable. LANdroids are smaller still, pocket-sized robots that can be used as communications relays, but they travel the world with tracks and flippers, much the way PackBot does. See the connection? Why use anything other than a track –and-flipper system when we know it works in all different sizes?

Left to right:
iRobot PackBot wheel hub
iRobot SUGV
iRobot 710 Warrior carrying an iRobot PackBot

AWARE©2

AWARE©2 is a framework for creating complex robot software systems. It enables iRobot to push the boundaries of what robots can do by making our robots easier to use, integrate, troubleshoot and support. What's more, the same software works on many different robots, so a single software engineer can quickly and easily program a variety of our robots without having to learn specialized languages for each one.

Images:
SUGV with AWARE®2 head payload

New robotic forms (Jambots)

Most robots are made of inflexible materials such as metal and plastic. While these materials are appropriate for robots, we're always looking for new ways robots can work. For example, our jamming gripper (developed in collaboration with Cornell and the University of Chicago) allows a robot to gently pick up an irregularly shaped object that traditional grippers might not be able to grasp, or might damage.

We're always looking for creative solutions to real world problems.

Left:
Jambot, a shape-changing robot
Right:
Universal gripper

New forms of interaction

iRobot is working on technologies that will allow robots to identify individuals and basic speech. In the not too distant future you will be able to control your robot with a gesture or a word.

Our newest robot, AVA, is a test platform that can autonomously navigate its environment and allow a distant user to interact with the people nearest the robot. This is just the first step for this technology.

Video:
Demonstration of human/robot gestural interaction
Images:
AVA

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