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The Associated Press May 29, 2005

iRobot brings machines to the mainstream

By Mark Jewell

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Watching the original "Star Wars" movie as a mathematically inclined 11-year-old, Helen Greiner dreamed of someday creating a robot like the heroic R2-D2.

After enduring plenty of lean years chasing that elusive vision as a co-founder and chairman of iRobot Corp., Greiner now can boast a product that whirs and chirps much like the character she to this day calls her personal hero.

The Roomba vacuum cleaner may be incapable of fixing an X-wing fighter like Luke Skywalker's trusty droid, but some 1.2 million of the disc-shaped robotic housekeepers have been sold in 25 countries in the past 21/2 years.

For Greiner, 37, the success of the Roomba and of iRobot's military machines validates the transformation of robots from the stuff of fantasy to practical tools.

"I think in the old days, robots had a perception of being kind of scary, and more science fiction than science fact," said Greiner. "These robots are on a mission, and so are we: to bring robots into the mainstream. . . . We can make robots do a better job than humans, in some cases."

iRobot is now the world's largest firm solely devoted to robotics, with more than 200 employees. But gaining that distinction didn't come easily.

Greiner spent long hours in the machine shop after iRobot's founding in 1990, struggling to create practical robots under continual threat of losing the financing that has kept the company going. Greiner had lucrative offers to go elsewhere, but stuck with iRobot.

"Just imagine going six and a half years, and having lots of opportunities thrown your way, and saying, 'Oh, actually I'm rather determined to make this particular activity work,' " said company co-founder Colin Angle, who met Greiner when both were freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Angle, chief executive of the suburban Boston company, says his business partner's success stems as much from risk-taking and persistence as from technical expertise and management skills.

"She's the type of person who will say, 'What the heck? Why not? Let's go try this. Let's go start a company. Let's go snowboarding. Let's go play paintball.' "

Thousands of missions

iRobot's chief military robot, a track-wheeled rover called the PackBot, has gone on thousands of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to disarm roadside bombs by remote control and search caves and buildings.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of her work, Greiner said, is receiving postcards from soldiers in Iraq who feel safer because of the 150 PackBots the military has deployed.

Greiner stresses the PackBot's defensive role, but technologies that iRobot and other defense contractors are developing are expected to lead to front-line robots -- from unarmed reconnaissance rovers that lead soldiers into buildings and help direct gunfire, to armed and autonomous robots that do the shooting themselves.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense consulting group, says he expects robots to be highly effective battlefield killers by the end of the next decade.

Such prospects have raised ethics concerns, and run counter to a robots-should-not-harm- humans principle that classic science fiction author Isaac Asimov outlined in his 1950 anthology, "I, Robot" -- the namesake of Greiner's company.

For her part, Greiner has said she doesn't believe robots should be empowered to decide on their own whether to take a life.

None of iRobot's current military robots have autonomous capabilities; all are directly controlled by humans. And while iRobot is developing the PackBot's abilities to carry payloads -- including the possibility of transporting weapons -- none of the company's current robots is armed.

iRobot's first product, a six-legged walking device called Genghis, was designed as a tool for robotics researchers.

Practical application

About six years later, iRobot began introducing its first successful military products. Then came the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Greiner takes pride in knowing that the Roomba needed just two years on the market to reach 1 million in sales, compared with seven years for air conditioners to reach that threshold, six years for televisions and five years for videocassette recorders.

"I think the question will not be, 'Will you have a robot in your home?' but 'How many robots will you have in your home?' " Greiner declared.


Copyright 2005, Associated Press