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iRobot makes robotics controls easier for the Average Joe

The Massachusetts-based robotics company, known most for its Roomba vacuum, is trying to make its defense and security robots more accessible.

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CNET's Bridget Carey tests out the uPoint system. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

iRobot has more than 6,000 defense and security robots deployed worldwide, with its machines in Japan helping clean up the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and in war zones detecting and disposing of improvised explosive devices.

As these robots become more complex and take on a wider variety of tasks, the Bedford, Mass.-based company -- which is best known for its Roomba automated vacuum -- saw the need to overhaul the controls on its devices so the Average Joe (or Jane) could more easily operate iRobot's 510 PackBot or 110 FirstLook robots.

So, instead of different kinds of controls for different robots, the company on Thursday unveiled a new controller system -- an app called uPoint Multi-Robot Control that allows someone to operate multiple robots from a tablet touch screen. The system is a big change from iRobot's previous controls, which have used video-game controllers to operate the robots and were far more complicated. Now, the new controls should shorten training time on operating the robots from three to five days, to just a day, and reduce the dependence on specialists trained specifically to control the machines.

"We needed to invest in simplifying the control of the robots so that more people with less training can use them," said Orin Hoffman, a technical director for iRobot.

The uPoint system could help drive demand for these defense and security robots -- which are used for bomb detection, checkpoint inspections and surveillance -- as they are picked up by more factory workers for dangerous jobs and by police officers for security needs. While the defense and security segment is small compared with iRobot's consumer products segment, which includes the Roomba, these complex robots could become a bigger part of militaries in the future, said Morningstar analyst Adam Fleck, as they become smarter and more autonomous.

Fleck said more simplified controls -- such as the autonomous driving mode in uPoint -- brings iRobot one step closer to its broader goal of making its robots more independent and able analyze situations without a human controller.

"It's all about adding intelligence in the field," Fleck said. "Otherwise it's just a toy."

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CNET's Bridget Carey, left, operates the iRobot 510 PackBot, with the help of iRobot's Orin Hoffman. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

The uPoint controller, which runs on certain tablets powered by Google's Android operating system, allows someone to use simple point and click touch screen controls to navigate a robot around, move its joints, and switch to other nearby robots on the field. The new system will be available starting in the second quarter of next year.

During a demonstration in New York City, Hoffman showed how he could easily manipulate a PackBot's arm by clicking on an image of its joints on his tablet or make it take different poses with the click of a button. He also zipped the smaller FirstLook robot across the floor by pressing along the tablet's touch screen.

"The more capability we put into our robots and the easier we make them to use, the more people will take them on more missions," Hoffman said.

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