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Talking Robots With CEO Colin Angle

The Motley Fool's Rich Smith recently interviewed Colin Angle, CEO of Rule Breakers recommendation iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) . The company makes consumer and military robots, including the Roomba, a home vacuum cleaner; the Scooba, a floor mop; and the PackBot, which is used for battlefield reconnaissance and bomb disposal.

Rich Smith: Colin, for the benefit of those who don't know iRobot, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the company?

Colin Angle: iRobot delivers innovative robots that are making a difference in people's lives. We've developed a range of practical and affordable robots for the home, including the iRobot Roomba vacuuming robot and the iRobot Scooba floor-washing robot, as well as military robots, such as the iRobot PackBot robot, which is used for reconnaissance and bomb disposal. To date, iRobot has sold more than 2 million Roomba robots and delivered more than 700 PackBot robots to a broad range of military and civilian customers worldwide.

RS: You have priced your newest commercial offering, the Dirt Dog, at $129.99. Unless I'm mistaken, that's a considerable discount from the price of your original Roomba. Isn't the idea to sell new products at a higher price than basic wares, and then discount them over time as generic competition creeps in?

CA: Dirt Dog is one of those great ideas where you set out to tackle a problem and realize that your solution is actually simple. Basements and garages are the challenge. The types of debris we needed to clean -- bolts, nails, sawdust, concrete, leaves -- are best handled by the brushes and don't require the vacuum. Thus, we removed it, enlarged the bin, and lowered the product's cost.

RS: You've told us about iRobot's domestic side. Now tell us about your more militaristic business. What exactly are the PackBot and R-Gator that you're developing in cooperation with Deere (NYSE: DE  ) , and why are they important to iRobot's future?

CA: The PackBot is a rugged, lightweight robot that is used by the military for reconnaissance and bomb disposal. More than 700 of these robots are deployed worldwide, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are being used to combat improvised explosive devices. The iRobot John Deere R-Gator is a 1,500-pound unmanned ground vehicle, currently under development with Deere. It will serve as a scout vehicle, perimeter guard, and "pack mule" for soldiers.

RS: One of the cable channels -- Military, History, Discovery, I don't recall which -- recently ran a special on robots in the military. iRobot was highlighted as working on developing "swarming" robots -- a term that conjures up frightful mental images of little mechanized locusts. Can you talk a bit about what a robot "swarm" is, what use you might put it to, and why it's not as much a threat to humanity as the name suggests?

CA: The idea of "swarm technology" is enabling one human operator to command many robots. This could be a lead driver of a convoy of supply trucks that effectively controls all the others behind him. It might be having one human supervisor oversee the autonomous searching and mapping of a cave in Afghanistan by a team of robots.

In order to reduce the number of soldiers in our military, we need to find ways of doing better than one soldier, one robot. Swarm technology, if applied, could be used deliver this sort of "force multiplier."

RS: So domestic, military -- one market you don't seem to be focusing on very much is entertainment. Is iRobot not interested in making toys for tots?

CA: We are not currently focused on developing toy robots. I believe there is value in entertainment as an application for robots, but iRobot focuses on delivering practical robots that help people.

RS: I'm going to name five companies that seem to me to compete with iRobot in one or another of its business lines -- either now or potentially. If you'd be so kind, give us a greatest-to-least list of which company you most wish would disappear and stop bothering you:

  • Honda (NYSE: HMC  )
  • Toyota (NYSE: TM  )
  • Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  )
  • QinetiQ's Foster-Miller
  • Northrop Grumman's (NYSE: NOC  ) Remotec

CA: What we would like is for companies interested in the emerging robot industry, including the ones you have named, to focus on finding new practical applications that can help grow the marketplace. There are so many opportunities out there, we could be helping each other grow the entire industry.

RS:I, Robot was first published 56 years ago, and a lot has changed between then and now. If you were writing your own three laws to govern iRobot's thinking machines, what would they be?

Current Rule Breakers subscribers can click here to read the rest of Rich's interview with Colin Angle -- and to see what iRobot's CEO thinks about building brains vs. bodies, the company's plans for new markets, and his three rules of robotics today. If you're not yet a member, you can read the interview and view all of our stock recommendations with a free 30-day trial.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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