May 23, 2006
Soldiers Bond with iRobot Machine
By Joel Rothstein
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers in Iraq are giving nicknames and forming emotional bonds with bomb-defusing robots they have come to regard as teammates, according to the founder of the company that invented the machines.
IRobot Inc. Chief Executive Colin Angle said one group of soldiers even named its robot "Scooby Doo" and grieved when it was blown up after completing 35 successful missions defusing improvised explosive devices.
"Please fix Scooby Doo because he saved my life," a soldier told repair technicians, according to Angle's account at last week's Future in Review technology conference.
The company, which is best known for "Roomba," the robotic vacuum cleaner, and "Scooba," the floor-mopping robot, envisions a machine that would instill similar feelings in civilians.
Someday, Angle believes, these robots -- which he calls "physical avatars" -- will help care for children and the elderly, giving parents and caregivers greater peace of mind and relief from mundane tasks.
But iRobot got its start as a military contractor, and its future also looks firmly wedded to the armed services.
The company was formed in 1990 and completed its initial public offering last November.
"There were no venture capitalists interested in funding robotics 15 years ago," said Neena Buck, a Strategic Analytics vice president who specializes in emerging technologies. "IRobot was funded by a lot military contracts and research grants that allowed them to do parallel research on consumer projects."
Scooby Doo was one of about 300 "PackBot Tactical Mobile Robots" deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to open doors in urban combat, lay fiber optic cable, defuse bombs and perform other hazardous duties previously done by humans alone.
In March, iRobot won a $26 million U.S. Navy contract to provide an additional 213 PackBots for bomb-defusing duty, bringing the total value of Navy orders of its robots to more than $43 million.
The company has also won a contract to supply its next-generation robots to the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems.
IRobot is working with Boston University on a sniper detection robot that could sense where a bullet came from.
Boeing Co., with employee-owned Science Applications International Inc., is the primary contractor for the $125 billion future combat program that will use advanced communications to link troops with a family of 18 manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles.
iRobot has sold about 2 million Roombas, the company announced on Monday. It doubled its first-quarter revenue to $38.2 million from a year earlier.
But investors have punished the stock, driving its price to about $21 from the mid-$30s in recent months as the company failed to turn a profit due to a near tripling of marketing costs.
"I think they are in the early innings of this market opportunity," said Jonathan Dorsheimer, director of research at capital management firm Canaccord Adams.
IRobot will use the defense market to develop technology that it can then use as the basis for lower-cost consumer applications, he said. For example, he suggested the company might develop a robotic lawn mower in this fashion.
And then there's the avatar. Angle said a human being would remotely control this futuristic robot, which would be capable of carrying out complex tasks such as cooking meals and ensuring people take the prescribed dosages of medicines.
"The physical avatar has a screen, sound, and the ability to manipulate objects," he said. "It provides a physical presence in a remote location."
An iRobot partner has already produced an avatar that Angle says allows doctors to complete hospital rounds remotely. Angle's goal is to make the commercial-grade avatar, which he says costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, cheap enough for consumers.
While he does not know when these types of machines will be available in typical households, Angle is more immediately focused on the robots in Iraq, which are going out on 600 to 700 missions a day. IRobot employees who have been in Iraq have returned with ideas to improve weight, battery operation and other product requirements.
Angle did not hesitate when asked if he thinks the bond soldiers have formed with his robots is normal.
"I think it's very rational," he said. "(Scooby Doo) was someone, something, that was doing a great service for them and thus when they brought it back, it was viewed not just as a loss of a machine gun or a piece of body armor or a helmet. It was a loss of a contributing member of the team."