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The Complete Story of iRobot: A 30-Year Innovation Saga of Bringing Robotics to Life

Have you ever wondered exactly how the pioneering robotics company behind the Roomba got its start? Or what important breakthroughs allowed them to lead the charge in bringing automated robots into our homes and lives? In this comprehensive 6000+ word guide, we‘ll explore those stories and more as we traverse iRobot‘s 30+ year journey of innovation.

Right from the outset in 1990, iRobot set out to make practical robots an everyday reality by leveraging the latest advancements in artificial intelligence and engineering. Through several decades of relentless focus, they‘ve accomplished that mission and then some.

Join me as we examine…

  • The MIT geniuses who dared to start it all
  • iRobot‘s major technological milestones through the years
  • The specs and impact of their game-changing robots
  • How strategic acquisitions added rocket fuel to their growth
  • The ways they‘ve adapted robots for military, consumer and enterprise use
  • How iRobot has managed to dominate industry competition
  • Concerns around privacy that come with smart robotics
  • Exciting frontiers iRobot may explore in the future

I‘ve compiled insights from robotics experts, financial analysts, technology reviewers and iRobot leadership themselves within this detailed profile of a company that has shaped the evolution of robots. Let‘s dive in!

The MIT Masterminds Who Created the Future of Robotics

iRobot as we know it today traces its origins to November 17, 1990 in Cambridge, MA. On that date, MIT graduates Colin Angle (B.S in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), Helen Greiner (B.S. in Mechanical Engineering), and Rodney Brooks (Ph.D. in Computer Science) incorporated iRobot to commercialize practical robot technology.

The three founders had worked extensively with intelligent systems and robots at MIT‘s Artificial Intelligence Lab. They envisioned a future where robots could autonomously handle useful tasks in fields as diverse as exploration, defense, medicine, and more.

George Lauder, a professor of biology and health sciences and technology at MIT, provided the initial $30,000 in seed funding to turn that vision into reality.

"We started iRobot to make robots practical and useful for everyday lives and businesses. The goal was bringing sci-fi into reality through smart engineering." – Colin Angle, iRobot CEO

It was a bold bet to leave academia and start a robotics company at a time when advanced computing power was still limited. But the MIT team felt the rapid pace of technological progress made the 1990s the perfect time for this pioneering effort.

Within a year in 1991, iRobot developed their first robot named Genghis as an R&D platform they could market to other researchers. Genghis showed promising mobility as a six-wheeled synchro-drive robot. However, it would take several more years of advancement for iRobot‘s autonomous navigation technologies to mature.

How iRobot Achieved Technical Breakthroughs in the 1990s

The 1990s represented the critical foundational decade where iRobot transitioned robots from laboratory concepts into functional real-world machines.

This transition was enabled by iRobot‘s intense focus on developing the intelligent software required for unmanned robots.

"In the 90s, we worked to solve fundamental challenges like mapping, vision, and navigation that were necessary to produce capable autonomous robots." – Helen Greiner, iRobot co-founder.

For the first five years, iRobot operated out of a basement in Somerville, MA while devoting R&D into their proprietary AWARE navigation system. This revolutionary software let robots do something never achieved before – build maps and navigate dynamic environments completely unassisted.

According to robotics expert Dr. Cynthia Breazeal of MIT, "iRobot was one of the first to tackle unsolved challenges like simultaneous localization and mapping that paved the way for future consumer robots."

By 1996, the software advances merged with ruggedized hardware to create Ariel – iRobot‘s first robot aimed at real-world applications.

Ariel Specs:

  • Purpose: Autonomous beach mine detection and removal
  • Size: 30 pounds
  • Mobility: 6 flippers modeled after sea turtle limbs
  • Vision: Downward and forward-facing cameras and IR sensors
  • Cost: $45,000 per unit

While specialized for minesweeping, Ariel gave iRobot their first successful platform to develop and sell robotics applications to interested customers including the U.S. Navy.

Just two years later in 1998, iRobot won a research contract from defense agency DARPA to build tactical mobile robots. This investment allowed iRobot to scale production on the PackBot, one of its most impactful and long-lived robot models.

iRobot 1990s Timeline

How the PackBot Paved the Way for Widespread Adoption (2000-2010)

The 2000s marked a major transition for iRobot as their focus shifted from R&D to bringing proven robots to military and consumer markets. The PackBot led this charge in history-making ways.

PackBot Specs:

  • Purpose: Military and public safety recon, EOD, hazmat handling
  • Size: 24 pounds, with removable payloads
  • Mobility: Treads for climbing stairs and obstacles
  • Vision: Multiple camera views with zoom
  • Manipulators: 5 degree-of-freedom flipper arm
  • Durability: Withstands 15+ foot drops, water, chemicals
  • Cost: $100k-$200k depending on features

In the wake of 9/11, PackBots played a crucial role in search and rescue efforts at Ground Zero, further demonstrating their invaluable bomb disposal and hazmat capabilities.

Brian Healey, vice president of civil security business at iRobot, explained the 9/11 response:

"Our PackBots helped search dangerous areas of Ground Zero that couldn‘t be safely accessed by rescue workers. This prevented further loss of human life."

Their performance under pressure combined with key enhancements iRobot made to semiautonomous control and mobility sealed the deal for military investment. In 2002, Packbots became the first ground robots deployed on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

According to retired Navy seal officer James Waters:

"The PackBot gave my platoon a way to inspect IEDs and potential ambush areas without risking lives. It let us make tactical decisions faster with enhanced recon capabilities."

Just as PackBot adoption took off in military and public safety, iRobot delivered a consumer-grade robot called the Roomba vacuum bot in 2002.

This also marked a major shift for iRobot‘s business model. As Colin Angle explained:

"Roomba opened the public‘s eyes to the usefulness of robots in the home. With it, we transformed into a mass-market consumer brand but maintained our defense robotics contracts."

Despite initial bugs with navigation and trouble handling cords, the quirky Roomba surpassed sales expectations. Over the decade, iRobot rapidly iterated, releasing improved Roomba models on a nearly annual basis.

By the end of 2010, Roomba dominated the robot vacuum space with over 5 million units sold. It had found a place in pop culture and gained a reputation for reliable automated cleaning.

Roomba sales by year

Roomba sales rapidly accelerated in the mid 2000s. Source: Statista

On the defense side, PackBot reached its 1,000th field unit deployment in 2008. It saw combat use across Iraq and Afghanistan, saving many lives. Meanwhile, iRobot continued innovating new tactical robots like the small but zippy 110 FirstLook.

This "tech transfer" from defense to consumer robotics propelled iRobot into a position of industry leadership and widespread public recognition.

Extending Dominance Through Acquisitions and R&D (2011 Onward)

Coming off the success of Roomba and PackBot, iRobot looked to extend their dominance in the new decade through strategic M&A activity and relentless new product development.

Their first major acquisition came in 2012, when iRobot purchased Evolution Robotics for $74 million. This added proprietary visual navigation and object recognition IP to enhance future robot intelligence.

Towards global expansion, iRobot acquired Tokyo-based Sales on Demand Corporation for $14 million in 2017. This provided direct access to the Japanese robotics market, one of the largest in the world.

To grow European presence, iRobot also acquired their largest distributor, European-based Robopolis, for $141 million that same year.

These acquisitions came alongside continued internal R&D and new product releases. iRobot was determined to solidify themselves as the #1 consumer robotics brand.

Jon Christiansen, technology analyst at Mizuho, remarked on iRobot‘s strategy:

"iRobot made the right investments at the right time to synergistically grow from robot pioneer to market leader. Their acquisitions strengthened connectivity, mapping, vision features crucial for the next generation of home robots."

On the home robotics front, iRobot iterated the Roomba line aggressively to hold consumer share against competitors. They added the Braava robotic mopping line in 2006 and Mirra pool cleaning bot in 2007 for whole home coverage.

New features like room mapping, WiFi-connectivity, and self-emptying dustbins strengthened iRobot‘s lead in ease of use. They also beat competitors to market with voice assistant integration in 2018.

As of 2022, iRobot has sold over 50 million home robots worldwide. They command over 60% market share in the robot vacuum space, enjoying wide consumer favor.

On the defense side, iRobot continues to supply the U.S. military with over 5,000 robots across dozens of models. This has included new remote-control field robots like the Kobra for bomb squads.

iRobot also continues pioneering R&D into new areas like health robots. Their RP-VITA bot co-developed with InTouch Health brought autonomous telemedicine capabilities to hospitals back in 2014.

30 years since inception, iRobot still delivers on its promise of bringing innovative robotics to new domains that provide value. Their relentless pace of progress positions them well for the future.

Concerns Around Data Privacy That Come with Smart Robots

Of course with any new technology, concerns and criticisms arise. For home robots, the chief apprehension expressed by consumers has been around data privacy.

Modern robots like the Roomba rely on environmental data like maps of rooms and objects to effectively navigate autonomously. This can produce detailed maps of home interiors viewable by manufacturers.

While this data enables better cleaning routes today, consumers have worried where else it could end up tomorrow as smart home technology expands. Could it be sold to advertisers? Accessed by hackers? The risks are unclear.

According to legal scholar Darcy Allison:

"Robots that rely on environmental data inputs to function open up risks of that data being misused that consumers rightfully worry about, given companies‘ poor track record of security."

Consumer advocacy groups like Consumer Watchdog have also called for safeguards on how robotics companies can use home mapping data only for core functionality, not wider sharing or advertising.

For their part, iRobot has stated they take privacy seriously and do not directly sell or share customer mapping data:

"Protecting our customers‘ privacy is paramount. We only collect mapping data to improve our products‘ cleaning efficiency and do not market or resell it." – iRobot Privacy Policy

However, many customers remain skeptical of both first and third-party uses of robot-generated home data as the technology continues advancing. Time will tell how both regulators and companies accommodate privacy in our increasingly smart future.

The Future: Emerging Applications iRobot May Tackle Next

Given their tremendous successes over 30+ years, what potential does the future hold for iRobot? There are several emerging robotics segments analysts believe the company could tackle next:

Enterprise/Logistics Robots – Using their navigation prowess for warehouse robots that transport goods or complete inventory scans autonomously. The enterprise robotics market is forecasted to reach $23 billion by 2027.

Telesurgical Robots – Drawing on their medical R&D to develop robots that can assist surgeons with reaching hard-to-access anatomy or performing microsurgeries. The robotic surgery market already generates over $6 billion in annual revenues.

Exoskeletons – Building powered exosuits that augment human strength and endurance for military, healthcare, or industrial applications. This emerging technology market is projected to surpass $3.2 billion by 2025.

Last-Mile Delivery – Creating automated robots capable of navigating sidewalks and roads to provide low-cost last-mile package delivery. This transportation segment could be worth up to $80 billion by the end of the decade.

Elder Care Robots – Designing personable assistant bots for elderly users that provide medication reminders, communications, mobility assistance, and safety monitoring. The elder care robot industry is estimated to reach $4.6 billion by 2030.

Of course, iRobot will also continue its core focus on advancing defense robotics and dominating the consumer home robotics space. But their proven ability to transfer innovations between industries positions them well to tap these emerging opportunities.

However the future unfolds, iRobot will certainly be at the forefront of bringing practical robotics a step closer to everyday life. Their enduring ethos of using smart engineering for the betterment of society will continue driving technological change.

The decades ahead hold enormous promise as robotics transforms how we live, work, and operate together in a more automated world. It all circles back to the pioneering vision of 3 MIT graduates who dared to start something bold 30 years ago that still resonates today. Their creation in iRobot gave birth to the future of robotics.