Boston-area firm iRobot is best known as the creators of the Roomba, the beloved floor-cleaning robots found in middle-class homes worldwide. But that isn't all iRobot does. iRobot is a leading manufacturer of robots for scientific research, health care, law enforcement, and the military. Last week, iRobot stopped by Fast Company's offices to show off their iRobot 110 FirstLook.
The FirstLook is a camera-equipped throwable surveillance robot that is hardy enough to survive a fall from a second story window. It has flippers that allow it to climb up walls and stairs, and is incredibly light--the FirstLook weighs only five pounds. This reporter, in fact, found it out to his chagrin when a quick toss of the robot nearly inflicted damage on a nearby wall. They have much more impact than one would expect.
iRobot's intended audience for the FirstLook is emergency first responders and the military. A robust video game-like controller allows viewers to move the robot like a remote-controlled vehicle while also controlling the camera. For emergency situations where surveillance of a building that humans can't safely enter is required, the FirstLook is ideal.
When iRobot's Chris Jones, a research program manager, visited Fast Company headquarters, he also brought other robots that the firm is working on. A large part of iRobot's research that's being shown to journalists deals with the issue of building better hands and limbs for robots. As Jones put it, having a robot open a door is much more difficult than it sounds. Because the motion of opening a door requires moving from multiple angles and articulation of both the arm, wrist, and fingers, it creates a vexing problem for engineers and researchers to overcome.
Although Jones would not go into detail about the construction process and testing process behind many of these new robotic hands, they were impressive. One human-like hand had bendable, twistable fingertips that even snapped off, giving the hand impressive capabilities. But the real wow-factor came in a new hand built out of a beanbag-like material that operated via air pump. The hand, controlled by the pumping of air and subsequent deflation, “hugged” any material it wrapped around and lifted it. In tests performed for Fast Company, the hand successfully picked up a smartphone and a child's action figure. The Defense Department's future-tech think tank, DARPA, is helping to fund iRobot's research into robotic hands.
In the video above, the iRobot 110 FirstLook sneaks up on some Fast Company employees, we learn a bit about the technology behind the robot, and we even take it for a spin around 7 World Trade Center plaza. Check it out.
Clarification: A previous version of this article referred to the robots as "Throwbots" in the headline. Throwbot is a registered trademark of ReconRobotics, who manufactures throwable micro-robots for military and law enforcement use.