iRobot demos 'shape shifting' next-gen robots

iRobot tries to cover the bases with its home-grown robotics technologies

Meet the next generation of robots that shape-shift, are squish-able, and can troll the world's oceans for months on a single battery charge. iRobot, best known for its Roomba disc-shaped robotic floor sweeper, is going way beyond scooping potato chips from under couches with its latest robot offspring.

At a press event in New York, iRobot representatives including CEO Colin Angle gave the media a roundup of current and experimental robots and introduced its fifth-generation Roomba sweeper.

Shape Shifting Robot

Easily the least recognizable robot at the showcase was a beige shape-shifting blob crisscrossed with lines and numbers and with tiny tubes emanating from one end. With a few taps from a nearby laptop, each tiny facet of the soft-sided robot could soften to the consistency of firm dough or become as hard and rigid as an overinflated soccer ball. When the facets were softened and hardened in the right order, the blob could rock-and roll.

iRobot's Angle modestly described the experimental soft robot as a "shape shifting, amorphous, squishable blob that can roll itself." Annan Mozeika, an iRobot representative said the technology was developed at the University Chicago and noted that a wireless version without external tubes had already been tested.

Ready-for-Combat Robot

At the other end of the notoriety scale was the 510 Pack Bot, a boney 60-pound robot with tank-like treads and a long robotic arm. The unit has been featured in the "CSI: NY" TV series and has been deployed by the military in Afghanistan. Aside from its multiple cameras, switchable sensors and its ability to be controlled from great distances, the unit comes with software which gives an exact representation of how the arm is deployed in case the robot in a situation where it cannot be seen. A smaller 30-pound version fits into a knapsack and is already in use by the military.

Ocean Faring Robot

Sitting silently in another corner of the iRobot showcase was a bright yellow, missile-shaped unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) like one used in the Gulf of Mexico to locate underwater plumes of oil that had collected from the now-infamous damaged BP Oil rig. Angle noted that iRobot did not wait for a contract to look for the oil plumes-it deployed the Seaglider on its own and made the data readily available to whoever wanted it.

"We took the initiative," said Angle. "We challenge and we make things happen.... We change things."

Tom Frost, program manager for iRobot's maritime systems, noted that the Seaglider can work for months on a single battery charge because it has no propulsion device like a propeller. Instead it relies on an internal bladder which can be filled or emptied of oil to change the unit's buoyancy. Once it sinks, wing-like fins cause it to glide forward and by shifting an internal battery pack from one side to the other, the Seaglider's direction can further be controlled.

Video below is of iRobot's Angle discussing Seaglider.

He noted that the Seaglider, which can dive as deep as 1000 meters, was developed at the University of Washington and is licensed by iRobot. Frost also noted that the Seaglider, which can be outfitted with many types of cameras and sensors, can be controlled from any computer with Web access.

"Some of my guys even checked up on this with their iPhones," he said.

So what would it cost to take a Seaglider home? Around $100,000 to $120,000, depending on how it's configured, Frost said.

New Roomba: Modular Design

The newest Roomba version has modular parts that can be removed and replaced easily by users. Instead of mapping and memorizing a room, which would take additional technology which would raise the price of the Roomba, which starts at $200, the unit's iAdapt technology uses an internal dirt sensor which literally listens for the sound of dirt being scooped up. With this information the unit can decide to return to the scene of the dirt to give it additional sweepings.

Video below shows the new modular design of the iRobot's fifth-generation Roomba robot sweeper.

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Robert S. Anthony

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