Extending Independent Living, Removing Bombs and Doing the Improbable Understanding the needs of society, as opposed to showcasing feats of technology, is pivotal to the long-term success of the robotics industry. While hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on cool robotics demonstrations, the industry as a whole has put relatively little toward solving the high value needs of businesses and consumers.
The incredible undertaking of the development of humanoid robots is a perfect example; it’s been an exercise in putting coolness before utility. Unlike those portrayed in science fiction, today’s humanoid robots are pre-programmed to perform solo tasks, or a series of them. They’re slow, limited and lack the ability to assess and respond to their environment. Many aren’t autonomous. Even the most exciting and promising systems often have a team of engineers walking behind them. Plus, the systems have a mean-time to failure of about 45 minutes with limited performance—not to mention all those millions of dollars.
But after decades of grand demonstrations and failed follow-throughs, the robot industry has finally reached a tipping point. Technological advances in robotics are solving problems, moving the industry beyond hype and into practical applications that are making a difference and driving profits.
- When Americans are in the market for a new vacuum cleaner, 25 percent consider a robot instead of an old-fashioned upright.
- Life-saving military robots, in the past used almost exclusively for bomb disposal, are now performing a greater range of missions for infantry and Special Forces.
- From a business and finance perspective, venture capitalists are increasingly viewing robot companies as a category instead of a miracle.
Right now, robotics is one of the most promising areas for scientific innovation and economic growth in America. In the not-so-distant past, the United States enjoyed great economic and technological success with automobiles, aviation, agriculture and information technology. In the near future, robotics has the same potential to be an economic engine that carries the nation forward, providing a foundation for significant enhancements and employment opportunities in healthcare, defense, consumer technology, and many other critical sectors.
The robot industry has come a long way—for robots and for humankind. Twenty years ago, robots were mostly an idea. They certainly weren’t practical, affordable mainstream products. And the perception that robots were expensive, didn’t work and posed a threat was driving a false reality.
We’ve also had to deal with the Hollywood-hyped fear of robots. In movies, TV shows, comic books, video games and other products of pop culture, robots of the future are portrayed as sentient, almost human, as they battle mankind. It’s no wonder the American public was afraid that machines would take over the world.
But time and affordable, reliable robots have changed things. Now, reality is driving perception; practical robots are making a difference, performing all kinds of tasks in various environments. And those practical robots aren’t humanoids.
In homes around the world, for example, robots are revolutionizing the way people clean. The robots are vacuuming carpets, washing floors, clearing gutters, and performing other automated home maintenance tasks. Millions of home robots have been sold worldwide. iRobot’s award-winning Roomba® vacuum cleaning robot is leading the cleaning charge. Roomba made practical robots a reality for the first time and showed the world that robots are here to stay.
On the battlefield, robots are a critical security and intelligence component of 21st-century warfare. Unmanned ground, aerial, and underwater vehicles provide situational awareness and perform bomb disposal, surveillance/reconnaissance, and other dangerous missions for armed forces around the world. As a result of their proven success in combat, the types of missions that robots perform are rapidly expanding on and off the battlefield.
Helping with humanitarian efforts after natural disasters is another way that robots are making a difference in times of need. The iRobot 510 PackBot® and iRobot 710 Warrior® were deployed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan to help in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Equipped with a range of sensors and payloads, PackBot and Warrior performed operations in areas of the disabled power plant where radiation levels and temperatures were too high and unsafe for people. In the U.S., robots are also being used to perform routine operations at nuclear power plants.
Technology has arrived at the crossroad where the promise of practical robots is no longer just a promise; robots are a reality now, and there are going to be many more of them in the not-so-distant future.
Technological advancements are making new robotic functionality a reality for less cost than ever before. The Internet and wireless connectivity—along with advances in computational horsepower, artificial intelligence, sensors, and power efficiency—have also helped bring us to today’s inflection point.
Of course, we’re not anywhere close to creating the Terminator or other humanoid robots as they’re often portrayed in pop culture. To a large extent, science fiction has gotten it wrong—artificial intelligence isn’t going to enter our lives as a human-looking cyborg that is an autonomous killing machine. Instead, robots will continue to increase the number of simple to moderately complex tasks they perform for us. Eventually, individual robots will be built up into more integrated systems. The top-down solution doesn’t have a chance to succeed, given the immense and complex challenges to accomplish it.
With the latest advances, robotic technology has the potential for a variety of significant practical applications in many areas, including healthcare and remote presence. RP-VITA is a joint effort between two industry leaders, iRobot and InTouch Health. As the first FDA approved autonomous telemedicine robot, it combines the latest in navigation and mobility technologies developed by iRobot with state-of-the-art telemedicine and electronic health record integration developed by InTouch Health. RP-VITA allows remote doctor-to-patient consults, ensuring that the physician is in the right place at the right time and has access to the necessary clinical information to take immediate action. The robot has unprecedented ease of use. It maps its own environment and uses an array of sophisticated sensors to autonomously move about a busy space without interfering with people or other objects. Using an intuitive iPad® interface, a doctor can visit a patient, and communicate with hospital staff and patients with a single click, regardless of their location.
The FDA clearance specifies that RP-VITA can be used for active patient monitoring in pre-operative, peri-operative and post-surgical settings, including cardiovascular, neurological, prenatal, psychological and critical care assessments and examinations.
There are very few environments as difficult to maneuver as that of a busy ICU or emergency department. Having crossed this technology threshold, the potential for self-navigating robots in other markets, and for new applications, is virtually limitless.
Robots also offer tremendous potential to help extend independent living for seniors—an issue that is going to become critically important in the United States over the next 15 years, as the number of people over the age of 65 doubles. Nursing homes, which today cost $10,000 a month or more, aren’t just an undesirable choice for seniors; they’re also not economically viable for the majority of us.
Robots can also proactively help with prescription drug compliance, alleviating many unnecessary hospitalizations and the skyrocketing healthcare costs associated with them. By integrating a practical, self-navigating robot with the wonders of mobile and tablet computers, robots like Ava have numerous practical applications and create endless commercial possibilities in healthcare, education, retail marketing and many other sectors.
And that’s the whole point—creating robots that offer more value than they cost to produce is what ultimately makes the robotics industry important and profitable. With practical robots, the possibilities to change the world are limitless. And that isn’t science fiction.
Colin Angle is chairman of the board, chief executive officer and co-founder of iRobot Corp. (NASDAQ: IRBT). Angle’s leadership has transformed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff into a global leader of practical robots. One of the world’s leading authorities on mobile robots, Angle is an industry pioneer with more than two decades of experience. Under his guidance, iRobot is at the forefront of the growing robot industry, delivering home and military robots that are making a difference. A longtime sailor, Angle is known for his ability to bring together and inspire a winning crew. By setting a course of team empowerment, collaboration, and innovation, Angle is enabling iRobot to deliver cutting-edge, market-leading robots that save time and lives. Today, more than 9 million home robots have been sold worldwide, revolutionizing the way people clean. More than 5,000 military robots have been delivered to defense forces worldwide, performing thousands of dangerous missions while keeping troops out of harm’s way. To learn more about iRobot visit, www.irobot.com.