iRobot Sneak Peek: JamBots, LanDroids, and TransPhibians

Aside from Dilbert, most cartoon characters don't get a chance to inspire tech companies. But Rosie the Robot of The Jetsons is definitely an exception, says Colin Angle, the CEO of iRobot. Angle helped to show off robots this week ranging from the company's Roomba vacuum cleaner and PackBot 510 military robot to squishable JamBots camouflaged to look like an octopus and a crab.

At a tech showcase in New York, Angle contended that he founded iRobot some 20 years ago because the robotics industry had failed to create actual robots that could follow the example set by Rosie, a major player in the 1960s futuristic TV cartoon series.

iRobot's Annan Mozeika, with the company's Emerging Technology team
It isn't enough for a robot just to be cool. Any robot worth producing should "solve real problems," Angle told reporters who dropped in to do a hands-on with the robots on Thursday night, despite a drenching rainstorm outside.

Later on at the press event, engineering specialists gave technical insights into what makes each robot different from the rest of the roster. iRobot also introduced me to a TransPhibian robot and some LanDroids. But I'll get to all that in a minute.

In his presentation, Angle focused on his conception of what iRobot's robots are doing to help people. Unlike other vacuum cleaners, the Roomba really knows how to gets a room clean, according to Angle. He got laughs out of showing how the housekeeping robot has endeared itself to the public by showing up on Oprah and in Hollywood movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Yet robots like iRobot's Seaglider and PackBot are addressing more serious problems than dust on the rug. U.S. military forces have used the PackBot in Afghanistan to clear the way for soldiers by checking for hazards like explosives.

The U.S. government deployed Seaglider in the recent Gulf oil crisis for sensor-based detection of oil and dissolved oxygen all the way to ocean depths of 1000 meters.

I spent a lot of my time later on at the press event in an emerging robots area. The octopus- and crab-like machines caught my eye right away As it turned out, these little JamBots are filled with sand.

Why sand? It makes the robots malleable, so they can turn "hard" or "soft" as desired, replied Annan Mozeika, one of the engineers. In essence, the sand-enabled robots fulfill functionality of the human hand that's been deficient in robots so far. When soft, the JamBots can easily pass through barriers. Yet when hard, the JamBots can "grip," he said.

The robots can even be configured to be soft or hard on a cell-by-cell basis. To show how that works, iRobot displayed a JamBot prototype all done up in a colorful multi-planed geometric form factor. When you squished it, some parts of the geometric robot were hard, and others soft. (That one might make a nice stress ball if it hits the market, too.)

Right now, air is being used to inflate and deflate the JamBots to make them hard or soft - so attached air hoses are a necessity. But iRobot has started working with the University of Chicago on electron technology that might become a more streamlined alternative to air pressure.

Stepping down the room a few feet, I next checked out a mock-up of iRobot's emerging TransPhibian. As its name implies, TransPhibian is an amphibian robot. So as you might suppose, the robot looks kind of like a sea turtle, and moves like one, too. Although TransPhibian sort of lurches along on land along the shore, it is a powerhouse swimmer well suited to use as either an exploratory oceanographic diver or a torpedo.

When I got around to the land-based robots LanDroid and SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle), the conversation turned to navigation technology, software programming, wireless communications, and sensors.

LanDroid and SUGV are both sort of like smaller versions of PackBot. SUGV looked to be maybe a foot or two high. LanDroid for its part, weighs only about a pound, and it's tiny enough to hold in your hand.

Both of these land-based robots use a track to move around -- much like an old-fashioned military tank, really -- so they can navigate uneven terrain.

Like the PackBot (and also like the Roomba), SUGV is big enough to be programmed so it can act autonomously, instead of needing ongoing human manipulation via remote control, said another engineer on hand.

Through what might be called rules-based artificial intelligence (AI), SUGV knows it shouldn't keep moving ahead when it hits a barrier like a wall (or a person). SUGV can also be programmed to build a reconnaissance map of the territory wherever it ambles, for use in guiding human troops when they arrive later.

LanDroid is too small yet to act on its own. However, it's able to cram its way into nooks and crannies less accessible to larger robots (or to people), and its very size will make it relatively inexpensive to produce.

LanDroid can be enabled with sensors and wireless communications. iRobot envisions use of individual LanDroids as Wi-Fi repeaters in a mesh network. Whatever LanDroid happened to be closest to cell tower could bridge the WiFi mesh network to a cellular network, I was told.

SUGV is already a commercial product. iRobot is also working on commercializing a four-pound edition of LanDroid, which should be capable of the so-called autonomous behavior.

iRobot has already attached sensors to the land robots for touch, temperature, and photography, for instance. 3D cameras could be next. Sensors can also be attached aboard the TransPhibian, if the sea turtle robot is sealed up tightly.

And by the way, Roomba uses a dirt sensor to tell whether or not it's gotten a room clean enough. Maybe the Jetsons would have appreciated a Roomba, too.

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