In a friendly sibling competition to please Mom, Thomas Hardman last fall bought her a Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. He won. Mom couldn't stop watching, and his sister couldn't stop laughing as the beefy, 13-inch disk crawled about in search of dirt. "Its behavior is a bit like an extremely obsessive horseshoe crab," says Hardman, 48, of Aspen Hill, Md.
Another Roomba had, seemingly, taken life. Dozens of YouTube videos show the little vacuum falling in love or plotting world conquest. Most owners at least name their Roombas. (The Hardmans' is "Izzy.") And the bots do a pretty good job of cleaning floors. They can't replace a push vacuum, but they can keep it in the closet longer.
In short, the personal robot has arrived in American homes with a stature that exceeds its floor-hugging posture. It looks nothing like Rosie, the home-cleaning android of The Jetsons age, and that's on purpose. Roomba and its cousins come from iRobot, a small Boston-area company that has looked beyond a future of humanlike androids for simpler products that will sell today. In doing so, iRobot has helped give rise to a new, worldwide push to develop and sell automated assistants.
In about six years, the world has gone from almost no helper robots to more than 3 million, almost all of them made by iRobot, including more than a thousand bomb-retrieving, life-saving models in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"But it was no overnight success," says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. He sits in an iRobot conference room that's as much a museum, filled with dozens of robots in numerous forms, some like crustaceans, some like small troop carriers, and some in the shape of babies. The company has been around for 18 years, and it has drilled, crawled, and crabbed through nearly as many different business models, Angle says.
Billions for bots. Now, analysts and researchers say, the long-anticipated robot revolution is underway. Personal robots emerged as a mainstream product last Christmas, with Sharper Image's catalog featuring a "Shop for Bots" section, says Philip Solis of market tracker ABI Research. He forecasts the nascent market will mushroom to $15 billion by 2015, split between helper robots and toys. Through 2005, maybe $1.4 billion in total had been sold.
The toys have been around since the days of Furby. It's the service robots that are the new category, so far dominated by iRobot, which had sales of $249 million last year.
But iRobot isn't alone. The medical field, for one, is a focus for robotics, where autonomous delivery carts already reduce costs at a few bustling hospitals. Robotic joints enable more affordable, intense rehabilitation for stroke patients. In early use, a robotic elbow from start-up Myomo has returned some movement to the paralyzed arms of patients, even after the device is removed. Kailas Narendran, one of the elbow's inventors, says a patient was surprised when the robot was removed and she'd regained movement. "She said, 'It's my own motion!'" Narendran recalls. Hence, the company's name.
Japanese and South Korean companies are releasing their own cleaning models. But Japanese automaker Honda, among others, showcases work on sophisticated, expensive androids it says can best maneuver in a human world. Legs are expensive to reproduce but may be needed to carry a raised "sensory package"—think eyes, ears, and nose—among furniture and through narrow hallways, says Rodney Brooks, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Still, Brooks's lab is full of automated torsos without legs. His latest project focuses on picking things up, specifically playing the game Go with its small, smooth playing pieces.
In 1990, Brooks joined Angle and Helen Greiner, two of his former students, in starting iRobot. After years of experimenting with limbs, the company now tries to keep them to a minimum. "Every joint adds complexity and cost," Greiner says.
IRobot did add an arm to its PackBots, which started as 50-pound wagons to help with bomb detection. Since 2002, iRobot has deployed over 1,300 PackBots. For the short run, the company's military sales also seem the most promising. The Army is now buying newer xBots, which are lighter and designed for regular infantry squads. "It could take military sales from hundreds to thousands," says Joe Dyer, head of iRobot's government products unit.