Very few people know more about the practical robotics industry more than iRobot CEO Colin Angle. We had a nice chat with him (he did all the talking) earlier today about the state of the robotics industry, why iRobot is essentially the only company doing what they're doing in the field, what kind of robots are coming in the future and why robots are necessary for the human race to survive.
Despite the inroads iRobot's made, robotics hasn't become a true industry even though the idea of robotics has been around for 40-odd years. The goal of the company is to get robots in homes to be ubiquitous. Their market penetration is currently only 1-2%, but it's even lower among the non-gadgety middle Americans that they're aiming for. "One robot company doesn't make an industry."
Why are so few people getting into the robotics industry now? Colin says it's because the market is incredibly hard, the margins are terrible, and very few companies have the collective knowledge necessary to enter the market. It took them 10 years to get enough company knowledge from partnering with the industrial cleaning industry (among others) in order to create a robot that's cheap enough and good enough to be used as a consumer electronics device. Other companies like Samsung or LG—who can design a device with the highest-quality parts for the lowest prices—can possibly enter in the robotics field, but they haven't chosen to yet.
So what's to come? Angle emphasized the fact that robots are going to be necessary to live the way we've become accustomed to. As the population ages here and in places like Japan (where three out of every two people are over the age of 150), robots are going to have to provide health and home care for the elderly. iRobot is entering this market with their ConnectR webcam robot that lets doctors or nurses monitor someone at home and have a "presence" there without actually being there.
He says that Japan is making developments in this area, but most of their designs (like the robot that helps you get out of bed, the dead human picker-upper and the exoskeleton) seem too expensive for the average elderly person to afford. ConnectR is just a start, but the industry around care for the elders is just going to get bigger.
Colin also talked about the military industry, which they've entered into as well. Their PackBot, which helped clean out mines in Afghanistan before moving onto Iraq, is just the tip of the iceberg. By using robots instead of humans to do dangerous missions like cleaning out a building, our military can use non-lethal force because the operator of the robot isn't concerned about his own life. This "shoot second" principal is supposed to save lives, even when we arm robots with weapons, as they're starting to. And with these lethal robots, there's always going to be a human "in the loop," meaning there won't be any autonomous killer robots that annihilate humanity.
Another very interesting piece of the robotics puzzle lay in the oil industry, which they developed a robot for in the mid to late '90s that improved oil refining by 100%. There wasn't a huge demand then, but there's obviously going to be a giant demand soon.
If iRobot's CEO has his way, we're going to have a robot in all of our houses. We can't wait.