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iRobot CEO decries the slow advance of robotics

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 21, 2014
Lack of funding, too much star-gazing are hindering the robotics industry, says Colin Angle.

Where's C3PO of Star Wars fame when you need him? Credit: Roger Schultz/Flickr

The CEO of one of the biggest and arguably the best-known robotics companies in the world is disappointed at the progress being made in the industry, which he says is nowhere near where he thought it would be today.

"We are just about none of the way to where we need to be to create a robot industry that is understood as a robot industry and not an interesting adjunct to another industry," said Colin Angle, CEO and co-founder of iRobot. "Where I thought we'd be? No way."

iRobot builds robots for the military, but is better known for its Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Face it, a lot of people grew up watching Star Wars, Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica -- and, of course, The Jetsons with its robo-maid.

But in 2014 there are no robots masquerading as humans and no C-3POs or R2-D2-like companions. There definitely are no robotic maids folding our laundry, making dinner and getting the kids off to school.

So what happened to the future everyone was imagining?

"Here we are. iRobot, is just entering its twenty-fifth year," Angle said. "I think I would have expected a lot more diversity of robots in the marketplace that I could go buy that would do some real stuff. Twenty-five years has passed since we started and we've accomplished..., I won't say nothing. We're starting to see the next generation of manufacturing robots, but that's still relatively early. That's not very blue sky."

He added that he considers it a win that Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot has changed the vacuum industry, noting that last year robotic vacuums captured 18% of all dollars spent on vacuums worldwide.

"If 25 years ago, you'd said, 'Do you think you'll change the vacuuming industry?' I might not have said, yes," Angle said in an interview after the RoboBusines conference in Boston last week. "At least we have that in the surprise win column. The rest of it is either not surprising or disappointing."

To be sure, there are a lot of robots working in the world.

Large industrial robots have been working in manufacturing plants for decades. Robotic arms on board the International Space Station capture visiting spacecraft and unload cargo. Robotic rovers are exploring Mars, while autonomous cars are being tested on city streets and the military is investigating the use of weaponized autonomous robots.

While great strides are being made in robotics, few think the machines are where they could be by now.

For instance, teams from the likes of MIT, Virginia Tech and Worcester Polytechnic Institute are readying their 6-foot-tall humanoid robots to compete in the finals of the DARPA robotics challenge next June. Roboticists are creating the software needed to get the robots to climb stairs and ladders, open doors and even drive cars.


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