Future technologies at iRobot

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iRobot booth at IFA

Although I have seen some of the new robots the night before the opening of IFA, I still went to see what iRobot had on display this year. They almost had everything that they currently have in production from Roombas to Seagliders. Of course the demo tables were filled with working 600 and 700 series Roombas and the two Scooba models, but I've also seen the new Looj gutter cleaner robot as well. iRobot is planning to bring the Looj product line to Europe next year, so I guess it was time to show it to local customers.

But looking around was only part of the reason I went to the iRobot exhibition area. I also had an appointment with dr. Chris Jones who was ready to show me what iRobot engineers are working on when the project is not related to the actual product lineup. Background research has always been an important part of iRobot, in fact the main purpose of the company was to bring those technologies closer to the customers that had been developed in the labs for years. These days iRobot is working on technologies that could make robots smarter or could greatly increase the capabilities of the robots. The persistent goal is to provide robots that can do more an more task without needing the people around them to understand robotics. Technologies like anti-tangling cord handling or going over tassels on rugs were similar developments of the labs and they are now part of the iAdapt technology in every Roomba robots. The robot can sense what's around it and can act accordingly to avoid problems. Such small steps in technology can make huge differences in the usability of robotic products.

To further understand what's happening around a robot, the devices should be able to see and recognize things in their environment. Currently robots don't know what they bump into, but with a help of a camera and a real-time object recognition technology the robots could recognize and identify objects or people around them. Dr. Jones has shown a few demonstration videos, and the object recognition was very impressive, even when objects moved or changed suddenly. Recently Google has announced that they are working on something similar, but while Google has all the endless computing capacity of their data centers, iRobot tries to develop algorithms that work with the limited capabilities of battery powered mobile devices. This would allow the robot to understand and accomplish complicated tasks, like “go pick up that glass and bring it here”. The object recognition would allow the robot to recognize the glass grab it and bring it over.

Another challenge is to make robots with manipulation capabilities that can be used in human environments. Robotic arms currently deployed in production lines or on army robots are big, heavy and not safe to work in a domestic environment. iRobot is working on alternatives that can act gently together with humans. In one of the examples I was shown, an elastic bag filled with sand like material was hardened and softened by simply pumping air out or in the bag. This technology can easily adjust to irregularly shaped objects. On a video such a ball could easily pick up a shock absorber with the spring around it from a table, what suggests that it is strong enough to hold even heavy objects. In another video elastic joints on robotic fingers allowed the hand to adjust to the environment to pick up cards laying on the table with two fingers. We have tried the same task with our fingers while the video was playing, but it is a hard enough even for a human, but the robot did it quickly and precisely. A third example showed an inflatable arm with two fingers that can be operated by wires. The softness of the touch can be manipulated with the air pressure within the arm, and the tactile military robot can carry rather large arms in a very small space when the arm is deflated and folded into the robot's body.

Although these bits of technologies are already available as prototypes, they still seem to be light-years from the home robotic products that are sold today. It is not easy to tell which one of these will make it to an actual product. Navigation, mapping and obstacle avoidance technologies that were demonstrated as part of AVA at CES a few months ago are now part of an actual telemedicine robot used in hospitals today, so some of these fresh technologies could show up in real products in the near future.

dr. Chris Jones
iRobot Roomba 660
iRobot Roomba 660
iRobot Looj 330
iRobot Looj 330
iRobot Roomba and Scooba lines
iRobot Roomba 600 series
iRobot Seaglider
iRobot military robots
iRobot Seaglider

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