iRobot CEO Colin Angle and his wife, Erika Ebbel
Photo by Bob Packert
Cryptic acronyms and tally marks graffiti a battered, tank-like robot in the lobby of iRobot’s corporate headquarters in Bedford. Scrawled hastily on a metal box is the name "Scooby Doo," the nickname soldiers in Iraq gave the robot when it was deployed with them during the war. The tallies mark the 17 improvised explosive devices, a car bomb, and an unexploded bomb that the little PackBot diffused during its wartime service. When the robot was finally destroyed, the soldiers picked it up "like a fallen comrade," says iRobot CEO Colin Angle.
Meanwhile, Roombas and Scoobas are zooming around millions of homes, vacuuming rugs and scrubbing floors, while their owners relax with a book or a glass of wine, content to let robots do the work for them.
These two robotics applications—bomb diffusing and house cleaning—may seem worlds apart, but for Angle, they both boil down to one thing: doing things that people don’t want to do themselves. "The mission was to create practical robots that [would] touch our lives on a daily basis," says Angle, an MIT graduate who founded iRobot in 1990 with fellow MIT roboticists Helen Greiner and Rodney Brooks. Angle says when people imagine the future, it always includes robots doing something useful for them, and nowhere was that more evident than on "The Jetsons," with Rosie the Robot Maid. But that vision of domestic robots hadn’t materialized. "In academics, there was a lot of robotic work, but there was nothing out there cleaning my house [then], and there should [have been]."
Angle’s first robot, a six-legged autonomous walking robot, which now lives at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, was the product of his Master’s thesis. That robot was built for space exploration, and the company’s early work included designing behavior-controlled rovers for NASA. In fact, Angle’s name is inscribed inside the case of the Mars rover Spirit. iRobot also developed a robot that detects minefields in shallow water and clears them.
"We tried a lot of things over the years," Angle says, from robots used for industrial cleaning to robotic toys. But it wasn’t until 2002 that iRobot hit it big, launching a product that not only delivered a financial home run, but also a kind of cultural currency: the Roomba floor-vacuuming robot. In less than a decade since it launched, the Roomba® had become part of the pop culture landscape, showing up not only on living room floors but also in cameos on TV shows, sublimely sucking up dirt on an episode of "Gilmore Girls" and appearing as "DJ Roomba" in a funny scene on "Parks and Recreation."
Angle says the "most bizarre" TV moment was a parody commercial on "Saturday Night Live" about the "Woomba," the robot that "cleans my lady business." "I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and this thing comes on with no warning, and I’m staring at the TV saying, ‘Is this good?’" Angle remembers. Although he was feeling "kind of traumatized, kind of shocked and amused," Angle says he decided to view the spoof as a good thing.
"It did show that the Roomba® had achieved a certain level of mainstream popularity, that ‘Saturday Night Live’ just assumed everybody knew what it was," he says. "And it’s been great fun to show at conferences and [to] traumatize people [with it]."
You might expect the MIT-educated head of a robotics company to be a little, well, robotic. But he’s not. Angle is easy-going and friendly, with a kind of quiet humor that shows itself in his wicked delight over "traumatizing" fellow scientists with the "Woomba." And, further driving home the point that scientists don’t have to be one-dimensional nerds, Angle is married to Erika Ebbel, a former Miss Massachusetts and MIT grad herself, who helms the nonprofit Science from Scientists, which puts real scientists in classrooms to teach kids that science is fun, and even—dare we say it?—cool.
"Growing up, Data was my hero," Ebbel says of the human-like robot in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." "And he was always searching to be human, sort of super-efficient at everything he did, perfect in almost every way."
"I’m not Data," Angle chimes in.
"That’s OK, you’re practically perfect in almost every way," she says with a smile. The newlyweds—they were married in August 2010—are impossibly cute together. But their banter about Data makes a good point: the idea that robots will look and act like humans—and maybe even want to be human—isn’t the reality.
"Legged robots—the expectation that that’s the form they’re going to take—I think that’s a substantial misconception," Angle says. Instead, they’re more likely to take the form of the Roomba, which looks almost like a flying saucer that moves around the floor by itself. But just because the Roomba® doesn’t have legs and a cute little face doesn’t mean it doesn’t become part of people’s families.
"Most people name them," says Angle. "Over 80 percent
of the people who own a Roomba have named it. Before you buy a Roomba, you think of it as a vacuum. And if I asked you, ‘Do you think you’ll name this?’ If you don’t own it, you look at me, really, like I was crazy and say, ‘I don’t name vacuum cleaners.’ Yet this thing is working for you…It’s helping you, and it becomes part of the family, and it gets a name."
Then of course, there’s Scooby Doo, the PackBot that diffused nearly 20 bombs before meeting its end during the Iraq war. iRobot launched PackBots in 2002, the same year as the Roomba, and given the fact that those robots have saved so many lives, it’s not surprising that they earned a nickname from the soldiers.
"I think that the application of a robot diffusing a bomb makes total sense," says Angle. So does the United States military, which has deployed more than 3,000 bomb-diffusing PackBots in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I think it would be safe to say most of the EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] techs over there today have avoided serious injury or even death because of these robots," says Angle.
With that in mind, iRobot is always at work developing robots to do things that people don’t want to do, or in some cases, can’t do, like probe the depths of the ocean. That was the case with the Seaglider, an underwater robot that iRobot used to detect the plumes of oil underwater after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The company published their findings online, publicizing the plumes "at a time when their existence was being discounted aggressively," Angle says.
"We found them the same day that BP was making the statement that they didn’t exist," he says. "We felt like we had an impact once again…and hopefully have contributed to the cleanup and conservation of the environment down there."
Although the company doesn’t discuss products before they’re launched, Angle says people can expect a new home robot from iRobot before the middle of 2011. "If you think about things you have to do to maintain your home, but don’t like doing, those are good candidates for robots," Angle says, citing tasks from cooking to mowing lawns to folding laundry.
iRobot also has its sights set on the health care market, having launched a health care robots business unit in 2009. Angle envisions robots helping people to live independently as they grow older by enabling conveniences like remote doctor visits.
"[Health care is] a long-term project for us, something that we haven’t announced any products about at this point, but we think it’s an incredibly important new market for robots in the future," Angle says. Until then, iRobot is continuing to create a world in which, slowly but surely, robots are becoming part of our lives, even if they don’t take the form of the Jetsons’ robotic housekeeper, Rosie.
"The future’s going to be far weirder than scary robots coming to knock on our doors," Angles says with assurance.
Chairman of the Board, CEO, and co-founder: Colin Angle.
Offices: Corporate headquarters in Bedford; offices in Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, California, the United Kingdom, France, India, China, and Hong Kong.
Products: Home robots (including the Roomba floor-vacuuming robot, Scooba floor-washing robot, Dirt Dog shop-sweeping robot, Verro pool-cleaning robot, and Looj gutter-cleaning robot) and government and industrial robots (including the SUGV, or Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle); PackBot bomb-diffusing robot; Negotiator surveillance robot for public-safety professionals; Warrior, which carries heavy payloads; and the unmanned underwater vehicles Seaglider and Ranger.
Year founded: 1990.
Number of employees: More than 650.
Annual revenue: $395-$400 million.
Contact: 8 Crosby Drive, Bedford, 781-430-3000, irobot.com.