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Book Excerpt: Part 2

Robots that suck Add to ...

Based in Bedford, Massachusetts, a short drive north from Boston through leafy New England, iRobot's headquarters is a single building in an industrial park overlooking the freeway. It's a much smaller base than what you would expect for what is quickly becoming one of the world's most important companies. Still, the modest operation speaks volumes about the company and the industry in general-while it is full of promise and has had some success so far, it is still very much a nascent business. iRobot was founded in 1990 by Colin Angle, Rodney Brooks and Helen Greiner, a trio of robotics researchers from MIT, and took its name from the Isaac Asimov novel I, Robot-since turned into a movie starring Will Smith-wherein humans and machines live together in relative harmony (at least before the machines rise up and rebel). In its early days, the company built some impressive robots, including a toy dinosaur, but floundered about in search of a market for its technology. "Probably about fourteen or eighteen business models came along and were discarded as they were found to be little more than a subsistence existence," explains Angle, the chief executive officer. Like many high-tech executives, Angle eschews a suit in favour of casual attire, a simple button-up polo shirt to complement a slightly dishevelled look that he must have borrowed from Bill Gates.



Read part-1 of the 5-part excerpt from Sex, Bombs and Burgers

Opportunity finally came knocking in 1997 when the company designed Fetch, a robot that cleaned up cluster bomb shards from airfields, for the air force. That led to a DARPA contract the following year for the PackBot, a robot that resembles a lawn mower, but with tracks instead of wheels and a long multi-jointed arm sticking out of it. The "platform," as iRobot calls it, can be endlessly customized with whatever equipment is desired. The arm can be equipped with several different types of cameras, including night-vision, as well as additional claw-like "hands" or even sensors for detecting explosives and biological weapons. Weighing twenty kilos and costing $150,000, the PackBot turned out to be a godsend for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its small size and ruggedness allowed it to go just about anywhere, from caves to office buildings, and its customization options let it perform many different tasks, including reconnaissance and bomb disposal, which has come in handy battling the weapon of choice of Iraqi insurgents, the improvised explosive device (IED).

The military contracts gave iRobot financial stability and allowed Angle and his cohorts to think about their real goal: the consumer market. In 2002 the company rejigged the Fetch into the Roomba, a disc-shaped vacuum cleaner that looks like a big Frisbee. At $200, the Roomba was the first home robot that was affordable, smart and-best of all-useful. With the press of a button, the device vacuums a room and returns to its charging station when finished. It can detect and avoid walls, coffee table legs and stairs, and go where humans can't, like under the couch.



The Roomba became a hot Christmas gift and proved a hit for the company, which then expanded into other home robots such as the Scooba floor washer, the Looj gutter vacuum and the Verro swimming pool cleaner. On the backs of its dual military and consumer markets, iRobot turned a small profit in 2003 and has continued growing since. In 2005 the company went public on the NASDAQ stock market and in 2007, before the global recession soured virtually every industry, reported a profit of $8 million. The next year the company sold more than a million home robots worldwide, bringing its total Roomba sales to three million, and saw overall PackBot deployments reach 2,200.7 The two markets have forced the company to learn different lessons, but in the end they are more similar than you'd think. "The consumer marketplace is very, very price sensitive. Everything needs to be engineered in an integrated fashion. There's no opportunity to put any fat into the design and still make money," Angle says. But both markets are utility-driven businesses. "If the Roomba doesn't actually clean your floor, we don't sell them. In the military, if the robot doesn't provide a tangible benefit to the soldier, such that the soldier is demanding to take the robot, then sales don't happen either. It's purely a utility sale as opposed to an entertainment or gadget sale because you don't buy vacuum cleaners on a whim, nor do you lug around a forty-pound robot for giggles."

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