During the TEDMED conference taking place in San Diego this week, iRobot announced the creation of a new product unit: healthcare robots. CEO Colin Angle said the overall goal is to add “one million hours of independent living” to seniors’ lives.
This is not at all a surprising move. Eldercare robots development has lagged in the US. Japan and South Korea have dedicated many more resources – including government dollars – to that development. So iRobot is well-positioned to take advantage of the relatively empty US market. But this is also a logical outgrowth of the short-lived ConnectR project they worked on last year. ConnectR was designed to facilitate telepresence, such as between a parent and child in different geographical locations. Telepresence has applications in remote physician visits, or for adult children to check up on their elderly parents. Combine iRobot’s experience with telepresence with their innovative ways to automate common household chores in a user-friendly way, and you have a compelling case for a useful, assistive robot that may allow elderly people to live independently for a greater length of time.
Since the Internet is a great place to advertise brilliant ideas here’s one for the iRobot folks: I’d love to see a little robot that carries one of those day-of-the-week, time-of-day array medicine containers, and a bottle of water, that rolls over to my grandparents when it’s time for their next dose. There. You’re welcome.
But seriously, this is a great place for iRobot to be and a good thing for the US in the global robotics market. What I do find particularly interesting is that they’ve established this group under a division separate from Home Robots and Government and Industrial Robots. Since Angle was clear that they would focus on home-based healthcare robots, as opposed to surgical robots or the delivery robots used in many hospitals, I admit I’m a little surprised that this isn’t falling under Home Robots. But I have a few theories. In particular I wonder if a new distribution model may be in place: could these robots be subsidized by insurance companies and sold through special distributors like power wheelchairs? Will they need FDA approval for any of these products, like the iBot robotic wheelchair DEKA developed? If either of these is true, while the iRobot Healthcare Robots philosophy may be the same as Home Robots, such a unique business infrastructure does require its own division.