From Sci-Fi To CyPhy: IRobot Founder Takes To The Skies

Posted: Feb 4 2014, 9:15am CST | by , Updated: Feb 4 2014, 9:21am CST, in News | Technology News


From Sci-Fi To CyPhy: iRobot Founder Takes To The Skies
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The excerpt below comes from Forbes/Wolfe Emerging Technology Report’s recent full-length interview with Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot and founder and CEO of CyPhy Works. In 1990, she co-founded iRobot [IRBT], which has become the global leader of mobile robots with the success of the Roomba™ Vacuuming Robot and the PackBot™ and SUGV Military Robots. Ms. Greiner served as President of iRobot until 2004 and Chairman until October 2008. She has been honored as a Technology Review Magazine “Innovator for the Next Century” and has been awarded the DEMO God Award and DEMO Lifetime Achievement Award. Helen holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in computer science, both from MIT.

(Full disclosure: my venture firm Lux Capital is an equity investor in CyPhy Works).


When did you first discover your passion for robotics?

I wanted to build robots since I was 11 years old. Ever since I saw Star Wars, I wanted to build an R2-D2. I went to MIT to develop my skills and learned a lot there, but at the time, they didn’t really know how to build real robots, so I started a company, iRobot, right after grad school with two business partners, Ron Brooks and Colin Angle. I was at iRobot for 18 years. We got the first real robots into people’s homes with the Roomba. We got robots out into the battlefield that saved hundreds of lives. It was a dream come true for me as a robot geek to drive robotics forward at the leading company in the field. After taking iRobot public in 2005, I decided to bring together a small group of passionate people getting some real new invention done. So, I decided to do another start-up company and also decided at that time to switch to UAVs, or flying robots, because I saw so much potential. Ground robots are great, but we like to say, “The problem with ground robots is the ground.” You always have to worry about hitting things and not being able to get over steps and “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” With flying robots, you can just fly right over obstacles.

What is the origin of the name CyPhy Works?

The name works on multiple levels. CyPhy sounds like Science Fiction, but it’s also a contraction of Cyber Physical, which is another buzzword for robots, and Works because the meaning of the word “robot” is “to do work”. Additionally, “Works” is a nod to Innovation Works, DreamWorks, and other places that are driving innovation.

You refer to CyPhy Works as a “flying robotics company”. What do you mean by that?

The first generation of UAVs was very beneficial, especially for the military, but they were really designed to go from Point A to Point B in free space. You either control all the motions with a joystick or it flies based on pre-programmed GPS coordinates. When UAVs have more intelligence and sensors on board, they can respond to their environment and don’t need pilots at all for takeoff and landing. This is when they start to become flying robots. I’m most interested in those aspects, unlike the hobby community where part of the game is to fly them. Businesses should be able to just push a button and flying robots can do the job autonomously, having the intelligence on board to recognize if somebody’s sneaking into a facility, for example.

What separates CyPhy Works and its UAVs from other flying robot companies?

We’re one of the only flying robot companies that are focusing on industrial applications. There are quite a few companies that have had success in the entertainment and hobbyist markets, but what’s going to be needed for the future are UAVs that can cross a city alone and stay up for long periods of time. These are the kind of UAVs that we work on here. So, we’re designing the environmentals, the longevity and the reliability to attack real industrial applications. We got our start in the military and we’ve already delivered vehicles there, and that gives us a really good to test out the reliability of our machines. There’s a saying that if you give soldiers a bowling ball, they’d find a way to break it. I had a guy once tell me he was going to throw one of our robots out the back of a C-130. Our machines have to operate in all conditions 24/7.

Tell us about your microfilament technology.

We’re attacking a different place in the market at first than other unmanned systems companies. The problem with competing UAVs is that they can fly for 30 minutes to an hour, but they can’t stay up and do the entire job. We’re building UAVs that can stay up 24/7. You put them up, continuously power them from the ground, transmit wired communications so you don’t have to worry about interception, and you can see an entire area from a bird’s eye view. Think of this of as a mini satellite system. We can provide full HD-quality video in real-time of your facility.

Where do you see the unmanned systems space five years from now?

I’ve been doing this for a long time and when we started iRobot, selling 100 robots would have been a dream comes true. We actually sold ten million Roombas and I think the flying robotics space really is at the tip of the iceberg of what we can do. I think large companies have suddenly realized that with the announcement of Amazon [AMZN] PrimeAir, with Google [GOOG] making eight acquisitions in robotics in 2013. I can’t think of an industry that’s not going to be affected by these unmanned systems. That really is the next step in technology- taking computers off the desktop and putting them in airspace. I’m really glad to have played a part from the beginning of commercialization.

What were some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced at iRobot, and now at CyPhy Works?

The biggest challenge at first was convincing people that robots weren’t too “science fiction”. In the 1990s, in both the military and the commercial spaces, it was very tough to convince people that we were not just a hobby company; we thought that there were real applications, that people need robots. I think the challenge that we continue to face is the complexity of robotics itself. You need computer, mechanical, electrical, dynamic sensing, and artificial intelligence skills- robotics has them all. That’s also what people who work in the field love about it: you’re working across disciplines, trying to bring them all together into something that’s got a great form factor, has enough intelligence and perception, and comes at a cost that people can afford. At the end of the day, you get to watch your creation come to life.

A lot of people worry about the privacy implications of having “eyes in the sky”. How does CyPhy address these privacy concerns?

Our systems are on tethers that provide power and communications, so the person who puts this up will be able to see from it, but there’s no chance it’s going to come and see into your backyard because it can’t fly away, it’s restrained by this tether system. So, I don’t think people will be worried about systems like ours.

How about for the unmanned industry in general? Do you think we should be worried about these advances in surveillance?

I think if people are going to be worried, they should be worried about the increasing resolution of cameras, because there should be no difference whether this is on a manned vehicle, on a balloon or on a kite. To have a different set of rules about a camera that you can point at something depending on what vehicle it’s on is kind of crazy. For example, if you set up a manned helicopter to do the news, you’re getting pictures of a lot of backyards every morning. Nobody’s concerned about that. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be concerned about privacy; I’m concerned about privacy, and I don’t want people to be able to point a camera at my house and take pictures of a certain resolution. I think there should be rules, but they should be rules about surveillance, not specifically about UAVs. I think the discussion should change to revolve around where you’re pointing a camera, what resolution is permitted and what happens to the data. Whether a camera is mounted on a human, a car, a kite, a balloon, a manned helicopter, a plane or a satellite, the concerns remain the same.

Are you looking at making any consumer-oriented flying robots?

Not right now, in part because I think that’s a saturated market. There are a lot of hobby vendors and they do a really great job. You can buy an RC helicopter for $30, and you can buy a great one for $200. I learned from my experience working in toy that you can have the biggest success in the world, but it usually just stays around for a few years because it peters out. What I’m more interested in doing is making a long-term business out of robotics that meets a consumer and industrial need. The Roomba may not have spiked as quickly as toys such as the Robosapien, but it’s still a good business over a decade later and it’s still a good business over a decade later, whereas you can’t even give away a Robosapien anymore.

You’re a role model for students around the world. How can we inspire a new generation of boys and girls to be interested in science and technology?

I think that robotics can serve as a “gateway drug” to get students interested in science and technology because robots are fun and serve as an area to apply the science concepts that they learn. “Why do I have to learn about gear ratios? Why do I have to learn about computer programming? Why do I have to learn about geometry?” Robotics is one of the areas that inspiring students today to pursue science and engineering. There are now a whole host of competitions such as the Bot Bowl and Lego League where kids can compete with their minds, not just with their bodies, and rewards can be just as great. A lot of friends who went to MIT with me didn’t end up pursuing careers in engineering. Some of them went into law, medicine and finance, but that engineering background offered them solid fundamentals to branch out from. When you learn engineering, you learn how the world really works.

Source: Forbes

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