Squishy robots, robots that can feel, and miniature autonomous robots that can set up a wireless network were among those displayed in a Manhattan showroom last night.
"Cool is awesome," said iRobot CEO Colin Angle yesterday, recalling one principle that led him to co-found the company 20 years ago, "but not enough."
iRobot is probably best known for the Roomba , the robotic vaccuum cleaner that has now sold over five million units. And indeed, one of the main reasons for yesterday's self-congratulatory iRobot gathering in midtown Manhattan was to remind consumers of Roomba's ever-improving floor-cleaning skills, in the run-up to the holiday season. ("I think it's the only vaccuum cleaner you can give to your significant other as a gift and not get in trouble," pitched Jeffrey Beck, president of iRobot's home robots division.)
But lesser known is that where iRobot really excels is in its cutting-edge robotics research, mostly funded by the Department of Defense with an eye towards potential military applications.
Take, for instance, iRobot's research into "swarm" robotics. "Swarms" are cohorts of miniature robots, almost powerless by themselves, but with strength in numbers. With DARPA's support, iRobot has prototyped one-pound, pocket-size robots. The Landroids, as they're called, look like miniature tanks with antennae sticking out. A soldier looking to set up a wireless network in a hurry could dash through a building, chucking the little guys into various rooms. The robots, which are outfitted with treads and can climb surfaces twice their height, then will move themselves automatically to configure an optimal network. If one should break, or get blown up, the swarm will reconfigure itself.
Another emerging line of research is in "haptic  manipulation," adding the sense of touch to robot-steering. iRobot's geek geniuses have outfitted a claw with sensors that, when the claw encounters resistance out in the field, relays that force back to the operator. I got a hands-on demo with this one. Slipping my index finger into a small ring-like structure, I was able to open and close a robotic claw. When I directed the robot to grasp a rubber ball, the ring-like control unit pushed back on my finger with an equivalent force. iRobot's Mark Claffee (that's his hand holding the ball) said they have run tests in which the haptic feedback makes users sensitive enough to gingerly lift an egg--whereas if users are only given visual feedback, "you're breaking the egg nearly every time."
There were other interesting robots on display in the emerging technologies section, including a robot that generates a map of a building as it explores it, and a "robotic turtle" called the Transphibian that can not only swim up, down, left, and right, but can also roll, pitch, and yaw.
But the pièce de résistance last night was a fresh look at the shape-shifting robot we've reported on before . Robots that can self-liquify: "That's the dream, right?" roboticist Annan Mozeika asked me. With DARPA funding, iRobot teamed up with researchers at the University of Chicago to make robots of a squishy substance that can alternately harden and go limp. First, the researchers made a 20-sided die--really--out of the material, demonstrating that by alternately rigidifying one side, then another, then another, the die could leverage gravity to essentially roll itself. Since then, the researchers have been working on an adorable squidlike thing whose legs, by the same hardening/softening switch-up, is able to toddle about. iRobot's beginning to explore potential applications--glomming onto objects and then hardening to snag them, for instance--but the emerging technologies unit has no real mandate to produce actual manufacturable-at-scale products, but mainly just to build nifty proofs of concept.
Mozeika had a cool job, I told him.
"I love it," he said, eyes wide.
A bit earlier, by way of introducing the form-shifting robot, CEO Angle showed a clip from Terminator 2 of the T1000 dissolving to pass through prison bars. "Why don't we build it?" he said with geeky excitement.
I can't think of any reason. Can you?
[Top image: Flickr user Qfamily ]