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iRobot's Angle on the future: More profit

Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, talks about what the company can do for the military as well as for your dirty floors.

Robots are increasingly the go-to gadgets for both mundane and highly difficult tasks, whether it's cleaning your house or protecting a soldier in combat.

There has always been a cultural tug-of-war between the embrace and fear of robots. At iRobot, that split is made manifest in product lineups.

It's almost as if iRobot were two companies. There is iRobot, the maker of friendly housecleaning robots like Roomba that can be bought at stores like Target and Amazon.com. And then there is iRobot, the military contractor with robots that can not only detect snipers, weapons and chemicals, but could also be mounted with deadly weapons.

The company is also caught between being an innovator and a profit maker. While consumers may be looking for an iRobot lawnmower, shareholders, faced with slowed growth and increased net losses, are looking for a profit.

This week, the company debuted a revamped version of its Roomba. iRobot CEO Colin Angle sat down with CNET News.com at his company's Burlington, Mass., headquarters to discuss where robots can go from here and where his company fits in.

Q: Why did you decide it was ?
Angle: Where the current version of the robot would fall down, we just wanted to find ways of making it last longer and be more and more durable. As you increase this utility and people go from vacuuming with the Roomba once a week to every single day, it creates a huge challenge as far as just making a product so durable that it'll last.

How many years do you think that this particular model is going to last the average consumer?
Angle: I think it's designed to last three to five years if being used every single day. So, it's very durable.

You have the PackBots for the military and the Dirt Dog for tougher vacuuming. Is iRobot going to get into commercial and industrial markets, or are you going to stick with consumer and military?
Angle: The robot industry is only at its early stages. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of wonderful applications for robots. Throughout our 17- to 18-year history, we've explored many different opportunities for robots to create value and we're only currently pursuing a few today. That is and helping our soldiers get more eyes and ears in very, very dangerous places.

Industrial cleaning, optimizing production and exploration for oil, mining, landscaping--they are all great applications which we're very interested in doing. I know other companies are interested in finding ways of making these types of machines and, you know, over the next 5 to 10 years many of these devices will most likely come into being.

From iRobot?
Angle: Well, if not us, then others. We can only invest so much every year on these new applications and trying to demonstrate to the world that not only are robots exciting, new, plenty of opportunity, but also that it's a good business. We've committed to our investors and Wall Street that we're going to focus on growth, focus on improving our bottom line and develop not just as a technical developer, but as a business and industrial leader in this space. Because ultimately that will lead to more investment, more attention, a more rapidly growing marketplace. And if another company is starting to figure (something) out and is doing good work, maybe they'd become someone we can acquire and become part of iRobot.

very similar to the Roomba in how it behaves. It works on the same concept.
Angle: Yep.

Are you thinking of getting into something like that?
Angle: I'm happy talking about what we're doing currently or what we're about to do, but there is a domain I really don't talk about because it is very, very competitive. I will tell you that lawn mowing is a great robot application. I've talked about it before. But we're going to be announcing two new products at Digital Life: one of them is not a lawnmower. I know there's been a lot of speculation that that was it. Certainly, it's something that we're interested in and I think that ultimately makes logical sense that a robot should be doing.

Let's talk about the military side of iRobot. How many PackBots do you now have currently in combat?
Angle: I can say we have shipped over a thousand and the vast majority of those robots are in Iraq. I can wax poetic about it just because it's so satisfying to be out there making a difference. When you get one of your PackBots back and it's blown up, it's like "Oh my God!" You know? We were able to save people's lives and so that's a great application and we're very proud of the work we're doing there.

I think that we are at a very exciting time for the robot industry. Companies like iRobot are starting to succeed from the business perspective and that's really cool; that's what's required to make an industry take off. But because we are building physical things as opposed to software, it is a capital-intensive, time- and labor-intensive industry, which will develop at a pace that will frustrate the enthusiasts and amaze the skeptics.

The recent Utah mine collapse brought the dangers of mining as well as the difficulty of search and rescue to the forefront of the American consciousness. As one of the leading manufacturers of consumer robots, what can you tell people about their expectation that robots can help in these sorts of search-and-rescue situations?
Angle: Well, robots shine in dull, dirty and dangerous situations, and places where you prefer people not be. Mining is an incredibly important and dangerous challenge and so I would say that the mining industry is an industry which is ripe for an expanded role for robots. I think that in the most recent situation...when things go unstable, one of the most challenging aspects of a rescue attempt is to not put the rescuer in mortal danger. Gee, what a great job for a robot.

What about mining in general?
Angle: Robotic mining is about moving large amounts of rock or cutting through rock, and it's a nontrivial challenge to create a robot that can mine. It's going to be a big, scary machine that has to be able to go and grind and eat up rock. So, if you think about the current situation, a robot probably would not have helped drill the initial shafts. A robot could go down the shaft and drive around and look for the miners, instead of the current challenge of lowering a camera and looking around and then when they can't see anything, or could see only 10 or 15 feet, we'd have to go build a road to a place where we want to drill, then drill and then hope you find them.

In 2002, iRobot had a PackBot that could search caves in Afghanistan for the military and made another robot that was able to search inside the Egyptian pyramids for the National Geographic Society. What are the technical obstacles preventing us from using robots like those to search in a mine?
Angle: The mine challenge is just one of physics. The hole is only so big; the PackBot is too large to fit down the hole. The pyramid robot that we created was designed specifically to operate and drive down the hole, but would not have the same mobility once it was down and trying to drive around the cave.

It would be very possible to have a robot that one could lower down into one of these emergency access holes and then drive around. But there is sort of an economic challenge for doing so. Is it a viable business, or is there a mechanism to pay for that type of hyper-special equipment? And the answer is, well maybe not. If the government was willing to sponsor a program to create such a device, iRobot will certainly be a good candidate to go build that device. But it's a costly challenge to make a robot that compact and capable.

There has been a lot of news lately about problems with outsourcing manufacturing to other countries. What's iRobot's plan for making sure that it has control over all the components that go into its consumer products?
Angle: We do manufacture some of our products overseas, but we have set up our own operations next to those factories and we actually have iRobot employees going in the factories every day, verifying quality and verifying that what is supposed to be happening is, in fact, happening. Unlike the toy industry, these robots are so complex that if we don't have fantastic attention to quality in the factory, then our robots will disappoint customers. To some extent I'd say we don't have the leeway to let things run freely, or else we'll risk suffering.