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There has always been a cultural tug-of-war between the embrace and fear of robots. At iRobot, that split is made manifest in product lineups.
It's almost as if iRobot were two companies. There is iRobot, the maker of friendly housecleaning robots like Roomba that can be bought at stores like Target and Amazon.com. And then there is iRobot, the military contractor with robots that can not only detect snipers, weapons and chemicals, but could also be mounted with deadly weapons.
The company is also caught between being an innovator and a profit maker. While consumers may be looking for an iRobot lawnmower, shareholders, faced with slowed growth and increased net losses, are looking for a profit.
This week, the company debuted a revamped version of its Roomba. iRobot CEO Colin Angle sat down with CNET News.com at his company's Burlington, Mass., headquarters to discuss where robots can go from here and where his company fits in.
Q: Why did you decide it was
time for the Roomba to be redesigned?
Angle: Where the current version of the robot would fall down, we just wanted to find ways of making it last longer and be more and more durable. As you increase this utility and people go from vacuuming with the Roomba once a week to every single day, it creates a huge challenge as far as just making a product so durable that it'll last.
How many years do you think that this particular model is going to last the average consumer?
Angle: I think it's designed to last three to five years if being used every single day. So, it's very durable.
You have the PackBots for the military and the Dirt Dog for tougher vacuuming. Is iRobot going to get into commercial and industrial markets, or are you going to stick with consumer and military?
Angle: The robot industry is only at its early stages. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of wonderful applications for robots. Throughout our 17- to 18-year history, we've explored many different opportunities for robots to create value and we're only currently pursuing a few today. That is helping people maintain their homes and helping our soldiers get more eyes and ears in very, very dangerous places.
Industrial cleaning, optimizing production and exploration for oil, mining, landscaping--they are all great applications which we're very interested in doing. I know other companies are interested in finding ways of making these types of machines and, you know, over the next 5 to 10 years many of these devices will most likely come into being.
Angle: Well, if not us, then others. We can only invest so much every year on these new applications and trying to demonstrate to the world that not only are robots exciting, new, plenty of opportunity, but also that it's a good business. We've committed to our investors and Wall Street that we're going to focus on growth, focus on improving our bottom line and develop not just as a technical developer, but as a business and industrial leader in this space. Because ultimately that will lead to more investment, more attention, a more rapidly growing marketplace. And if another company is starting to figure (something) out and is doing good work, maybe they'd become someone we can acquire and become part of iRobot.