iRobot: Major Restructuring, Ava Goes Shopping, and the Army Gets FirstLooks

iRobot has been in the news a lot these past few days, and we'll tell you what they've been up to

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Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

iRobot: Major Restructuring, Ava Goes Shopping, and the Army Gets FirstLooks

We're going 100 percent iRobot with today's post, 'cause they have a bunch of robotics news that all seemed to happen within the last week or so, and we want to make sure you're up to date: in addition to reorganization of the entire company, their remote presence robot Ava is learning some new tricks, and the U.S. Army has put in a big order for FirstLook reconnaissance robots. We've got details!

Let's start off with iRobot's restructuring or reorganization or "strategic realignment," as they're calling it in biz-speak. We've always thought of iRobot (unofficially) as two sort of separate entities: the one that builds PackBots and Warriors, and the one that builds Roombas and Scoobas. Now, iRobot has formalized this deal, restructuring strategically realigning itself into three separate divisions (or "business units"): home robots, military robots, and emerging technologies. Yeah, that last one has us interested too, and here's what iRobot CEO Colin Angle has to say:

“We have come to a point where iRobot must align the company’s organizational structure with our longer-term strategy as a technology leader focused on a core competency of creating robot-enabled solutions for a wide range of real-world problems,” said Colin Angle, chairman and chief executive officer of iRobot. “The use of iRobot platforms and technologies outside of the home and military markets has grown to a point where developing new products in the existing business structure limited our potential for growth. The new structure allows us to build market-facing business units around new opportunities and energize rapid product development.”

So obviously there's a lot of PR going on here, but the relevant message seems to be that iRobot (or some portion of iRobot, at least) is ready to move beyond PackBots and Roombas. Where those emerging markets are may be anyone's guess (and a lot of people have been guessing), but telerobotics and healthcare might be two good directions, and that's part of the idea with Ava.

You remember Ava, right? We met her at CES in 2011, and since then iRobot has invested heavily in a deal with InTouch Health. Now, it's looking like iRobot wants to aggressively explore what else is possible with the Ava platform, and the Boston Herald reports that they're going to stick the robot in some retail stores and see what happens:

“Brick and mortar stores have been at a disadvantage,” iRobot CEO Colin Angle told the Herald yesterday. “They haven’t figured out how to inform the customer at the shelf. People can touch and feel products, but they’re relying on their own judgment, without the judgment of others.” 

The idea here is that Ava will serve as a shopping assistant, providing detailed reviews and FAQs about products on the shelf. Sort of like what you probably already do using your smartphone, but in the form of a robot that anyone can easily use. Ava will be introduced through some pilot programs in big-box stores sometime this year at a price "in the tens of thousands" of dollars per robot, but as with most technology, if she proves popular enough we can expect her price to come down quite a bit over time.

Ava may be iRobot's future, but here in the present, the company has just announced that they'll be sending the Army the very first batch of FirstLook throwable surveillance robots, which we first met about a year ago. The Army is getting over 100 of these things on an $1.5 million contract, which makes the little robots practically disposable, at least as far as a military-level budget is concerned. And this is very very good, because it means that more soldiers are likely to have the chance to use a robot to scout out dangerous areas instead of having to do it themselves. iRobot also says they're still working on two-way audio and mesh networking capabilities for the FirstLook, which has the potential to turn them into a more versatile flavor of LANDroids.

It's always great to hear optimistic news from big robotics companies, even if we do have to take all of that PR with a grain of salt. But, it certainly seems like iRobot is actively selling new products in both the military and consumer sectors while putting renewed energy into product development, which (we'd like to think) is a generally good signal for the industry as a whole.

[ iRobot ]

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