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Ask Colin Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Q: Chloe

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What’s your favorite robot that you’ve built, and what’s your favorite robot that iRobot is developing now?

A: Colin Angle

My favorite robot that I have personally built (i.e. me soldering) was Genghis. Genghis was a six-legged walking robot, and it showed the world that robots didn’t need super computers to dexterously walk through complicated terrains. Today, iRobot is starting to field the SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle). This robot is a true masterpiece. Light-weight, carrying a host of sensors, able to climb stairs, and designed to be serviceable and manufacturable, SUGV is a robot that will help to save warfighters’ lives.

Q: Evan Ackerman

Subject: PackBot and Paintball?

Love the videos, is there any back story to the PackBot with the paintball gun?
Also, does this mean that we can expect a laundry folding robot from iRobot sometime soon?

A: Colin Angle

We have a tradition at iRobot of having an annual paintball contest between the different divisions of the company (the Corporate team is the current champion – yea!!). The Government and Industrial division mounted a paintball gun onto the PackBot to investigate if it could play – and because it was a very fun thing to do after hours. We actually learned a lot about how difficult it is to operate a robot in a very dynamic environment, and it has influenced some of our human-robot interface projects.

About the laundry-folding robot, nope. Low-cost manipulation is still hard.

Q: Jackenson Durand

Mr. Colin,

Do you never think of inventing robots that would help us to clean our cars after snow falls?

How long that should take to build a small robot like on this video one?

I was thinking of a robot machine that would help to plant thousands of trees on my native country mountains each day for helping disasters after hurricanes’ season.

A: Colin Angle

Every time I shovel out my car, I think, “a robot should be doing this.” Of course, this happens less frequently than me thinking “a robot should be folding my laundry.” There are so many other chores around the house that need to be taken care of on a daily or near-daily basis, so I think we should focus on those first.

Q: James Collins

Have you tried making tiny robots? nan-technology is a relatively new and “small” emerging field: What’s the smallest robot you have ever built?

A: Colin Angle

At MIT, in Professor Rodney Brooks’ lab, I was involved in a project, led by Anita Flynn, to build robots using techniques similar to those used in building silicon chips. We got some silicon micro-machined motors to move a bit, but this didn’t lead to an actual product. One of the first projects at iRobot was to build control systems for tiny nano-robots. Again, we did some cool work in simulation, but the robots proved extremely challenging. I believe one day nano-robots will play an important role in medicine.

Q: Jillian

What is your favorite robot of all time? Do you have a favorite of the robots now in the works at iRobot?

A: Colin Angle

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Roomba. It became the first practical mobile robot for the home and changed the way people think about robots forever.

Q: Dutch

What’s your favorite robot from movies or TV? And btw, I love the Rooma – haven’t vacuumed in years!

A: Colin Angle

In the original Star Wars movie, there is a small toaster-sized and shaped robot on the Death Star that guides Stormtroopers to where they need to go. I always liked that robot because I could imagine how to build it – and it served a real purpose.

Q: Angela

What do you think of robotic toys/companions for children? Do you have them for your daughter? Do you think they stifle creativity? What do you think of robots as companions for elderly people? A future full of “robot friends” seems worrisome to me.

A: Colin Angle

Robotic toys can be very interesting, but it is important that the toy not “dictate” how the child should play with it. Rather, it should take its cues from the child and enhance, teach, and enrich the play experience. We incorporated some of these features into a robotic baby doll we built for Hasbro in 1999. Of course, making a robot that is aware of its environment is extremely difficult.

I believe that robots have great potential for seniors, allowing them to live more independently at home for longer periods of time. From helping them get around, to bringing them medications at the right time, to decreasing social isolation and serving as a link to their doctor, there are many critically important tasks that robots will one day provide. This is not an if, but a when.