When I was little, I was enamored with the idea of being a pioneer; I was drawn to the thought that I could be the first to do something — be a trailblazer, the forerunner of a movement.
For a while, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie and live in a log cabin on the frontier of civilization. But then I saw Star Wars, and I fell in love with R2-D2. I thought he was the coolest part of the movie. At the time, I thought that R2-D2 was an actual robot.
It was my big brother who told me that R2-D2 was not actually a robot, but an actor playing a robot. My brother was a huge Star Wars fan — he had all sorts of geeky paraphernalia, so he’d become an expert in all things Star Wars. I told him about my love of R2-D2, and he said that a little man, an actor named Kenny Baker, was just wearing a plastic shell and pretending to be a robot. I was crestfallen.
I couldn’t let it go. I kept thinking about how cool it would be if R2-D2 really existed as a robot. He was more than just a machine — he was almost humanlike in his moods and emotions.
Then it dawned on me. I could make this happen. I could make robots just like R2-D2. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a pioneer in the field of robotics.
And so my education as a roboticist began. Slowly at first, with a TRS-80 computer that we had in the house. My dad and I took BASIC lessons at Radio Shack, and I learned how to store programs on the TRS-80’s cassette drive. Believe it or not, that’s how you stored your programs back then. But it was that cassette drive that showed me the connections between programming and mechanical elements — essential stepping stones in my robotics education.
I went to MIT and got a degree in mechanical engineering then a master’s in electrical engineering and computer science. I focused on robotics and AI, and it was at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab that I met Rodney Brooks and Colin Angle. They became my co-founders, and together we formed iRobot in 1990.
We didn’t exactly start out with guns blazing. Back in 1998, when we first started making prototypes, we were pitching Hasbro on robot toys. We got one prototype down to around $115 in parts, which was basically the cost of its materials. We were so proud of ourselves! But Hasbro just laughed at us — we had no idea that, after factoring in expenses like shipping, import duties, marketing, logistics and so on, the consumer price point was four or five times that of just the materials. And $500 was rather a lot for a toy. But we learned a critical lesson about how the business world works, got a robotics doll on the market for $100, and drew from that when coming up with the idea for the Roomba.
Initially we had focused on the idea of a large cleaning robot — the type that could clean the floors of a store at night. But the iRobot engineering team realized that if that robot wasn’t absolutely perfect, it was going to knock stuff over, maybe even punch through walls. So they proposed an idea: Let’s make something that has just one job; it’ll pick up dirt and do nothing else. And thus the Roomba was born.
The thing I’m the most proud of is iRobot’s PackBot. The PackBot identifies and disposes bombs, and it’s been credited with saving thousands of lives. It has searched for booby traps and IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq. On September 11th, as part of a search-and-rescue operation, the PackBot went into damaged buildings to make sure they were safe. And, after the Fukushima disaster, I was told that the cold shutdown couldn’t have happened without PackBots inside the plant.
But there would’ve been no PackBot or Roomba without a small group of people at iRobot who were passionate about the idea. It was this small group who came up with the design and kept the product moving along internally, until we were ready to push it out into the field.
In 2008, I became fascinated by drones. I had a feeling that they might be the next big thing. Turns out that I was right. I started CyPhy Works that year, and we came up with two designs for industrial and military drones. But I wanted to make a consumer version — what we’re calling the CyPhy LVL 1 drone. It flies without the tilting that plagues competitors, and you can control it from your smart phone, which also lets you share in real-time. And to keep your first drone flights safe, you can now create a geo-fence by basically just walking the area you want the drone to stay in. We’ve just raised over $600,000 on Kickstarter for the CyPhy LVL 1.
Like the PackBot and Roomba, there’d be no LVL 1 if a group of people hadn’t supported the idea.
I think that Margaret Mead summed it up best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This quote has followed me on my journey though the world of AI and robotics. Mead was talking about citizens, and I’m talking about engineers, but I believe that the concept applies to so many things in this world.
Once I was at a conference, and a colonel grabbed my hand and said “Thank you for saving 11 of my men on one mission,” and gave me a challenge coin, which is a symbol of appreciation from the military. Without a small group of people devoted to the creation of R2-D2, who knows what I might’ve done with my life. Instead, I created something that helped save hundreds of lives and kept people from spending valuable time on mundane chores.
As told to Adrienne Day
Cover GIF shot on a Samsung Galaxy S6 edge by Peter McCollough
Illustrations by Thoka Maer