Will iRobot Produce the Healthcare Robot of the Future? I Have My Doubts. (video)

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A new gripper could be a key ingredient in iRobot's entry into elderly care.

Colin Angle’s presentation at TEDMED this past year has me wondering about the future of home healthcare. According to the CEO of iRobot, makers of the Roomba vacuuum, robots are the solution to extending the time in which the elderly can live independently in their own homes. Robots could allow caregivers to monitor patients from afar, they could remind people to take their medications on time, lift simple objects, or even transport heavy items. I totally agree with Angle’s assessment, but I’m not sure he does a good job of pitching iRobot as the company to make these solutions happen. Check out Angle’s TEDMED presentation in the video below and judge for yourself. Does it seem like iRobot is close to putting medical bots in our homes?

iRobot created a whole new unit of their company to deal with medical applications. When I first heard about Angle’s aspirations for home care robots I was picturing something more advanced. Certainly the compliant manipulator Angle demos around 14:22 in the video is cool but we’ve already seen the ‘jammable material’ in action before with their BlobBot prototype. Most of the rest of Angle’s talk seems just that – talk. We hear a lot about the necessity of robots in the home, and he shows how iRobot platforms like the SugV (at 10:50) and Warrior (16:35) could be remodeled for caregiver applications, but he doesn’t show a finished product, or even a truly innovative prototype. Compare this with the healthcare robots we’ve seen from Panasonic. Sure, those are still in the early phases of development, but they already seem more polished and applicable than what Angle demonstrates.

I have a lot respect for iRobot. They created and conquered the robot vacuum market. They’ve used that success to fuel some great research and create a host of other robots that most consumers probably don’t know about. Angle and his team have taken huge steps towards making robots a beneficial part of our daily lives.

However, they’ve fallen behind in the vacuum market (see our review on next generation of vacuum-bot, the XV-11 from Neato). And now when I watch Angle’s presentation on medical bots I feel very disappointed. This is what you bring to TEDMED? A few seconds of robot demos that we could have already seen years ago, and a brief look at an interesting new gripper? That’s totally lame. Admittedly Angle’s approach to the topic is emotional and moving, and this presentation is a year old, but I still expect better. I think the crowd at TEDMED did too.

Elder care is going to be huge in upcoming decades. It seems undeniable that we will spend larger portions of our economic and social might tackling that problem. Robots are a way of mediating the effect of the boom in the number of elderly, and could provide meaningful improvements in quality of life to our aging loved ones. But it’s going to take a lot of innovation to make robotics ready for that task. iRobot is a good robotics company, but I think they’re progress is trailing their vision. We need better robots, and soon.

[screen capture and video credit: TEDMED]
[source: TEDMED, iRobot Press Release]