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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.

He pointed to Sony's Aibo, a series of robotic pets officially launched in 1999 and discontinued in 2006.

"It cost them huge amounts of money every year to continue to advance the robot," said Angle. "They may have created valuable marketing and PR events to enhance the reputation of the builder, but they didn't advance the robot industry."

Michael Gennert, director of robotics engineering at WPI, said it's easy for researchers to get obsessed with an idea or a technology but, at least at his university, educators are trying to get students to look at the bigger picture.

"It's a rookie mistake. A lot of college graduates are kind of in love with their technology and don't think if their product has a compelling value proposition," Gennert said. "You have to understand the opportunity. It's not enough just to be cool. You have to be useful as well."

To propel students in that direction, WPI requires its robotics engineering students to take a course in entrepreneurship.

However, even if someone has a great idea to develop a useful robot, they still need to get the funding to create it. That's an expensive proposition at a time when funding is more of a trickle than a flood.

"It takes $20 million or more to build a legitimate robot. It's a much bigger check to write to get to play," said Angle, who noted that iRobot spends $40 million a year on Roomba and related research. "It's expensive to do what we're doing.... If it takes $20 million to build a legitimate robot, where do you find that as a startup? You need someone to take such a big bet."

To get that kind of funding, the industry needs a big, high-profile win to entice venture capitalists and companies to open up their wallets and invest. That means someone needs to develop that next great robot that makes splashy headlines -- or Google needs to add to the list of robotic companies it's acquiring.

"iRobot has a market capital around $1 billion and that makes us the 35-pound gorilla of the robotic space," said Angle. "I'd love to be the 350-pound gorilla. It's just not good enough yet. We need more big wins. Rod [Brooks, founder and CTO of Rethink Robotics] can have a good success with Rethink and that could have a significant impact. It helped that Google bought a lot of companies last year. But the track record is not yet where it needs to be."

However, Angle isn't pessimistic. Advances may not be coming as fast as he'd, like but he says they are coming.

Google is working on its self-driving car and the company, along with Amazon, is working on delivery drones. The U.S. Navy is testing those autonomous boats.

 

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