iRobot CEO Colin Angle on robotics, mapping and assisted living

The leader of robotics veteran iRobot wants to help an aging population as key

Whether it was Robby the Robot, Metal Mickey, K9 or C-3PO, many of us dreamed as kids of having a metallic personal assistant that would pander to our every need. Colin Angle was the same… but worse. “It was so bad,” he laments. “I used to dress up as a robot for Halloween. My mother said, ‘fetch your milk glass from your den’ and I was off, trying to build a robotic crane to retrieve it…” The difference is that Angle went on to build one of the most important consumer robotics company in the world.

Thanks to science fiction, Hollywood and the rest, robots have populated our imaginations for a long time. Angle has been as deeply involved as most, having co-founded Bedford, Massachusetts-headquartered iRobot in 1990, eons ago by the standards of the tech sector, and having struck gold with the launch of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. When I spoke to him by phone recently, I asked him how he scored his company’s history and that of robotics development.

He recalls the 1990 scene, starting the company straight out of MIT with fellow graduates, as “a very different world” and says that he and his colleagues worked on the basic notion that it was “about time robots became real” rather than the stuff of movies and books. That has started to come to pass, more or less, as software-rich, sensor-equipped hardware responds to our commands over wireless networks and smartphone or computer consoles.

“The consumer robotics sector is growing fast and the many ways robotics will affect our lives are pretty substantial,” Angle says. “It’s hard to imagine any physical industry that won’t be impacted.”

iRobot has tried plenty of them: the company has made forays in business-to-business, medical, defense and other areas before settling on the consumer space as the area with maximal potential impact. He says that today he is driven by a desire to have “a daily impact on people’s lives” by being part of “the technology ecosystem that’s developing in people’s homes”.

At MIT he had already developed a behavior control architecture for a six-legged robot that could climb over rough terrain using “the processing power of a primitive calculator”. Later at iRobot there was a micro rover for exploring the moon and Mars and some of this technology found its way into the Sojourner rover used in NASA’s 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission.

It was all “quite exciting but it wasn’t a great business”, he concedes. There were efforts in toys, oil and gas exploration and perhaps another 20 businesses iRobot entered and exited. If he had tried to predict the way things would turn out, he says, he “would certainly have got it wrong”.

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