"Google wants to build the delivery robot. I want to build
the machine that opens the door for the delivery robot."
-- Colin Angle
Those were the words spoken by iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) CEO Colin Angle after Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) acquired Boston Dynamics a little more than a year ago. That was Google's eighth robotics-related acquisition during a span of just a few months, so industry watchers couldn't help but wonder whether the move would be bad news for other competitive players like iRobot.
Though best known for its popular Roomba robotic vacuums, iRobot also offers a number of antonymous telepresence robots built on its Ava mobile robotics platform. While its current commercial and healthcare iterations don't have arms or hands, Angle has long stated he hopes to evolve the platform into a sort of "robotic butler," operating within the confines of our homes.
Meanwhile, Boston Dynamics was made famous by its incredible series of walking, self-balancing bots, which can carry loads both big and small while traversing all kinds of difficult terrain. And so, the thinking went, to have Boston Dynamics' efforts backed by a deep-pocketed tech giant like Google would represent a huge threat to iRobot's long-term ambitions. Angle's statement above makes clear he disagrees with that thought.
Enter the iHY hand
A recent IEEE Spectrum article authored by Harvard Biorobotics Lab head Robert Howe, Yale's Aaron Dollar, and iRobot's Mark Claffee reminds us that iRobot and Google's efforts are more aligned than you might think. The article focuses on a durable, inexpensive robotic hand dubbed the iHY, or iRobot-Harvard-Yale, hand -- designed through a collaborative relationship between the three organizations to compete in DARPA's Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program in mid-2012.
Why is this important? To achieve the robotic-butler effect iRobot ultimately envisions, it's paramount that the robot be able to effectively interact with and manipulate objects in the world around us. And while the article points out that industrial robots have been manipulating objects for decades, those bots also operate in predictable, structured environments where it's comparatively easy to succeed.
DARPA's ARM program required a robotic hand that could perform a variety of such unexpected tasks without any special programming -- something that the iHY hand excelled at more than any other robot. If you'd like to get a sense of the iHY hand's extraordinary capabilities, take a look at this companion video that IEEE released along with the article:
In the end, the iHY hand easily beat the competition -- even pegged against two other worthy options developed by Sandia National Laboratories and SRI International. This ensured DARPA would continue using it as an integral part of future competitions.
In fact, several teams of competitors in the ongoing DARPA Robotics challenge have already used the iHY for a variety of tasks. The article notes that it included a team from Google's Boston Dynamics, which attached the iHY hand to their humanoid Atlas robot to open doors and handle fire hoses.
But that's not entirely surprising. Even with Google's enviable cash hoard, why would they reinvent the wheel if it already exists? Given the iHY hand's durability and low cost, the team behind it hopes to make it a "fixture in robotics research labs around the world." For now, that also means the lab is where the iHY hand will primarily reside, albeit enjoying incremental upgrades and added capabilities along the way.
Down the road, however, the team is insisting in the article that they will build versions of the iHY hand "for a variety of commercial purposes." Despite its modest size as a $1 billion company, it's arguable that no company can bring robotics technology out of the lab and into the fray as effectively as iRobot. When that happens -- and whether the commercial version is exclusively on iRobot's machines or also available to others like Boston Dynamics -- it's not hard to see how the iHY hand could have a profound positive impact on the way the world thinks of interacting with robots.