For the past ten years, a company called iRobot has changed the way we think about vacuum cleaners.
iRobot makes the Roomba, a little vaccum cleaner that automatically runs around around your house to clean the floor before returning to its charging base. To date, the company has sold over 10 million of them.
But there’s another part of the business that not a lot of people know about. It builds security and defence robots for police and military. These robots have been used everywhere from Afghanistan at the height of the war to Japan after the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
We spoke to Tim Trainer, iRobot’s VP of Product Management for Defence and Security, to learn more.
“In the early 2000s, we had a contract with DARPA and thought it might be better to send a robot instead of a soldier into Afghani caves to see if they held weapons caches,” he told us. “Soldiers [carried our robots] 15,000 feet up Tora Bora, used them in the caves, and gave us an understanding on what we could do better. That was our first production contract, if you will.”
“The whole idea is to put robots in harm’s way and keep the operators out of harm’s way,” said Trainer. This is the guiding design principle of iRobot’s defence and security offerings. You might consider them especially souped-up remote control cars that can climb stairs, deactivate bombs, and wirelessly provide the operator an uninterrupted first-person view of what the robot “sees,” all while keeping human life a safe distance away from a dangerous situation.Things grew from there when iRobot sent some of its systems to New York City in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The robots were used to validate buildings’ structural integrity before sending in first responders.
When news of Fukushima’s earthquake and subsequent nuclear power failure reached iRobot, Trainer described email threads that circulated inside the company that sought to figure out a way to help. The company ultimately sent four robots to Japan — two from production and two from development. “We didn’t know if they were going to be used for search and rescue or to go to the reactor facility. Ultimately they went to the reactor, though we didn’t design them for that. Still, they were robust enough that they still operated in a fairly heavily radioactive environment. Mechanically and electrically, these things have the flexibility to go somewhere where they weren’t designed to go.”
It speaks to toughness both in that these robots are physically tough, but in toughness of design that can accommodate (even thrive in) a number of situations that a human would rather avoid.
iRobot’s consumer and defence businesses used to work quite independently of each other, each with its own engineering and operations. But a recent reorganization essentially united them. “More recently with the drawdown, our DOD business has gone down fairly significantly, but thankfully the home and consumer business has grown significantly,” Trainer told us. Each business “has its ups and downs,” and in the late 2000s to early 2011, the defence side was “probably leading the way given the buildup in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Nowadays, security and defence accounts for roughly 10% of iRobot’s business, but Trainer points out that “we have the flexibility of having very diverse markets that allow us to sustain changes in either sector. The DOD is still a great customer.”