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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.

But in the last DARPA challenge, the robots' movements were slow and halting. Some fell over, unable to get back up. The autonomy was more about getting the machines to balance themselves than to carry out complex tasks on their own.

It's not all bad news, though, said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. It's all about perspective and adjusting expectations.

"Many of those who decry the lack of advances in robotics are overlooking the massive number of instances where sophisticated robotics are being used," he added. "While they've been looking for a robot butler, they've missed seeing that the Navy is close to having an automated seaborne battle group or the built-in robot that makes sure their car doesn't smash into the car ahead of them or drive off the road."

Angle and other roboticists, though, feel we could be further along in building robots that make life easier and safer, or act as assistants and companions.

The problem with progress is three-fold, according to Angle, who worked on a miniature design for NASA's Mars rovers and holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's degree in computer science, both from MIT.

The robotics industry simply isn't getting the influx of funding it needs. Researchers are getting too hung up on the cool technology, instead of focusing on robotics that can be put to work. And the robotics industry simply needs a big win to get the attention, momentum and financial backing it needs to explode.

Pam Henderson, a former assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-founder and CEO of consulting firm NewEdge, Inc., agreed, adding that too many roboticists are in love with their own ideas.

"Some of you have one idea you are in love with and you are going to ride that thing until it goes to market or it kills you," Henderson said during a keynote talk at RoboBusiness. "Robotics is not the industry. Appliances are the industry. Home health care is the industry. The need isn't for a robot.... What's the opportunity? No opportunity? Don't build. Be pretty crisp on the applications before you do the development."

That's a lesson iRobot and its executives had to learn.

Last year, the company generated $487 million in revenue and employed more than 500 people. But iRobot wouldn't have succeeded if Angle and his partners hadn't focused on the need, instead of the robot.

"We could have built a robot that could climb stairs because it's super cool, but we would have gone out of business," said Angle. "Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted building cool demos instead of useful products in the robot space."


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