Friday, June 26, 2009

Helen Greiner's Droid Works Wins First Gov't Grant for Flying Bots

Helen Greiner's stealthy new start-up, The Droid Works, has said almost nothing about what they're up to, except that they're working in the field of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles.) So far, Greiner has been funding the Framingham-based company herself, so there aren't any VCs to blab about what they're working on. And the company is small -- just a handful of engineers, including one superstar HP veteran who helped develop the inkjet printer -- so employee leaks are unlikely. All this makes a curious journalist sad.

But when I saw Greiner last night at 'What's Next in Tech,' she mentioned that the company had just landed its first government grant through the SBIR program (Small Business Innovation Research.) I did some searching, and discovered that the company is receiving almost $100,000 to develop flying bots that can operate indoors and out. The description of the work is fascinating, so I'll share it here -- and also mention that Greiner's last company, iRobot, was initially funded not by VCs but by government grants from agencies like NASA.

    An Indoor/Outdoor Robotic Air Vehicle for Emergency Response

    This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I research project will develop underlying technologies that will enable Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV) to navigate inside houses and buildings. This technology, applied to emergency response situations, will save the lives of police officers, victims, and suspects. Emergency response teams have been slow to adopt unmanned systems to aid in hostage situations, search and rescue, fire fighting, and armed standoffs. The impediment is the capabilities of the available unmanned system. Available ground robots are halted by rough terrain, large steps, and closed doors. Current UAVs can only be used outdoors. If UAVs could also take on indoor applications, they would surpass the capabilities of the ground robots as UAVs can traverse over any terrain, over any step, and enter and exit a building through any opening (including high windows). The technologies needed to enable for small UAVS to perform indoor missions are: indoor flight control and safety around people, which are the areas of the research proposed.

    This project will prevent the loss of life in dangerous situations by reducing emergency response teams' exposure to lethal situations, by increasing the amount of situational information available to emergency response teams, by reducing the level of anxiety of besieged suspects, and by allowing remote inspection of places and things that are harmful to humans.

And if you want a window into some of Greiner's current thinking about bots and artificial intelligence, she wrote a piece this month for Forbes titled 'Who Needs Humanoids?'

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Free DVDs: MIT Robotics Conference

(Update: DVDs have been claimed. Thanks for playing!)

If there's an Innovation Economy reader out there who'd like a set of DVDs from last month's MIT Robotics Conference, drop me a note. (Postage is on me, as long as you're here in New England.)

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

iWalk: Cambridge's quietest start-up?

I'd really heard absolutely nothing about iWalk, a Cambridge start-up that has been around for a couple years now, until I was doing some research for a robotics panel this week at MIT.

One of my panelists was MIT prof Hugh Herr, who also serves as founder and chief scientific officer of iWalk. The company is commercializing a robotic prosthetic device developed in Herr's lab that does the job of a foot and ankle for people who no longer have their own. They call it "PowerFoot One," and according to the Web site:

    "Two powerful microprocessors and six environmental sensors evaluate and adjust ankle position, stiffness, damping and power thousands of times a second. Control algorithms generate human-like force while traversing level ground, slopes and stairs, providing active amputees with near-normal gait and lower energy expenditure compared to state-of-the-art passive prosthetics."

Seed funding for the company came from Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and other angel investors. HBS prof Bill Sahlman serves on iWalk's board.

Herr told me that two years ago, the company raised $5 million from WFD Ventures in New York. Right now, Herr said, iWalk is trying to raise another $7 or $8 million to get the first product finished and ready for sale.

In addition to Herr and CEO Richard Greenwald, the start-up has five employees, I'm told.

More on the technology here.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Three iRobot Spin-Offs: Harvest, Heartland, North End

Sunday's column focused on the robotics cluster in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, including new companies like Harvest Automation, North End Technologies, and Rod Brooks' new venture, Heartland Robotics. All of them involve former iRobot employees and execs as founders, so I consider them the spawn of iRobot.

Here's the video - a demo of Harvest Automation's prototype greenhouse robots, with Harvest CEO Charles Grinnell.

Two days after the column ran, Rod Brooks -- one of iRobot's three founders -- officially announced he was stepping away from his role as iRobot's CTO to focus entirely on getting Heartland off the ground; he'll still head a technical advisory board at iRobot and remain on the board of directors.

Xconomy has another piece about Heartland, which deftly doesn't mention that my Globe column broke the news of the company's formation two days earlier...but that's the blogosphere for ya.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Q Robotics: The Wraps Come Off Wednesday Night

I've been waiting just about a year to find out what the heck Q Robotics is up to. (See this post from July 07.) Q is a sort of splinter from the iRobot tree; co-founders Joe Jones and Paul Sandin were both at iRobot previously, where they helped develop the first-gen Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.

So far, they've been very stealthy. The Web site still says zilch about their focus.

But Joe Jones e-mailed today to let me know that Wednesday night at an MIT Enterprise Forum event, they'll be talking about their focus and strategy, and CEO Charlie Grinnell will show some video of prototype robots in action.

Jones writes via e-mail: "We found an agriculture-related application that meets three prerequisites I see as essential for a successful robot: 1) The robot satisfies is a genuine market need. 2) The task is within reach of current robotic technology. 3) The cost of the robotic system can be competitive with existing non-robotic solutions."

The Groton, MA company is also unveiling a new name: Harvest Automation.

I think that makes them the first Massachusetts company specializing in robotic farmworkers... but correct me if I'm wrong.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Boston Dynamics' BigDog Video Spawns Parodies

Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert sent an e-mail last month offering a sneak peek of a new video of the company's gasoline-powered robotic dog, BigDog. The 'bot was shown climbing in snow, and slipping on an icy parking lot -- before recovering its balance.

Then, earlier this month, after getting the proper approvals from DARPA (the Dept. of Defense agency funding the project), the BigDog video appeared on YouTube. It has since amassed almost four million views. Here it is:

Now, parodies and mash-ups are cropping up everywhere... a sure sign that Boston Dynamics, headquartered in Waltham, has achieved not just technical success (they call BigDog "the most advanced quadruped robot on earth"), but viral video success.

Two of the better ones:

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

What to Do This Weekend With Your Kids, Woz, Bob Metcalfe, and Blue Man Group

On Friday or Saturday, take them to the FIRST regional robotics competition in Boston. (Other regionals around the country are listed here.)

If you haven't seen a FIRST robotics competition (created originally by MIT prof Woodie Flowers and inventor Dean Kamen), it'll blow your mind...and perhaps cause your offspring to become obsessed.

From the press release:

    BOSTON– March 26, 2008 – Over 1,000 area high school students will be competing in Boston’s largest robotics competition this week. The Boston FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition will take place at Boston University’s Agganis Arena Friday through Saturday, March 28-29, 2008. The event is free and open to the public.

    Blue Man Group, the multimedia entertainment phenomenon, will perform during the opening ceremony for the competition’s final matches: Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 12:45PM. This special live appearance will showcase Blue Man Group’s signature music and excitement.

    Over fifty teams spent six weeks designing and building robots to accomplish specific tasks outlined in this year’s game, “FIRST Overdrive.” The teams will compete for honors that recognize robot design excellence, competitive play, sportsmanship and high-impact partnerships between schools, businesses and communities.

    The Boston FIRST Regional ( brings together student teams from across the region in an atmosphere that is described as “rock concert meets the Super Bowl mixed with science and technology.”

    Students competing in the competition will be able to interact with a number of the nation’s leading technology pioneers. This year’s judges include Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, iRobot co-founder Colin Angle and Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe of Polaris Ventures.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Kiva Systems, and the Region's Robotics Cluster

Yesterday's Boston Globe column focused on the warehouse automation solution developed by a start-up called Kiva Systems. It's being used by companies like Staples, Walgreens, and, and it relies on beefy orange robots -- about the site of ottomans -- to move around racks of merchandise. Interestingly, Kiva's founder came east to start the company, after working at Apple and WebVan in Silicon Valley.

Here's the video I shot at Kiva's 'demonstration warehouse' last week:

In doing the story, I discovered that the region's most significant robotics industry networking group seems to be the robotics cluster that the Mass Technology Leadership Council has created. While the MassTLC doesn't have a comprehensive list of all the robotics companies in the state, they have produced a
snazzy brochure (PDF) touting the benefits of being headquartered here.

Aside from Kiva, here's the list of the ten New England robotics companies I heard mentioned most often during my research (ranked in no particular order):

    - iRobot: publicly-traded maker of bots for pool cleaning and bomb disposal. Co-founded by MIT prof Rodney Brooks, and Colin Angle and Helen Greiner, his former students.

    - Foster-Miller: Waltham developer of robots for reconnaissance and hazmat disposal.

    - Boston Dynamics: maker of walking, animal-like robots for the military. Founded by MIT "Leg Lab" legend Marc Raibert.

    - Bluefin Robotics: Cambridge, Mass. designer of robots that aren't afraid to get wet.

    - Hydroid: another manufacturer of underwater bots, in Pocasset, Mass.

    - North End Technologies: stealthy NH robotics company funded by Castile Ventures. Founded by iRobot alums.

    - Q Robotics: another quiet Mass. company founded by Paul Sandin and Joe Jones, creators of iRobot's Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.

    - Smart Robots: Dalton, Mass. maker of mobile robotic platforms for education and application development.

    - MobileRobots, formerly ActivMedia Robotics: NH company focused on "research and university robots."

    - Black i Robotics: Tyngsboro, Mass. maker of rugged six-wheeled robots.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Robot demos and panels at WPI, next week

From Worcester Polytechnic Institute:

    As of fall 2007, WPI is offering the nation's first bachelor's degree program in robotics engineering. The new major grows out of an increasing demand for robots and robotics systems to meet national needs in areas such as defense and security, elder care, automation of household tasks, customized manufacturing, and interactive entertainment, and also responds to the escalating interest in robots among young people. This major, which crosses academic boundaries, is designed to prepare a new breed of engineer with the skills and imagination to develop intelligent machines that go beyond today's reality.

To mark the launch of the program, they're holding a one-day symposium this coming Tuesday, which features speakers like Dean Kamen of DEKA and Helen Greiner or iRobot. They'll also have robot demos -- and the registration price is cheap: $20.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Top Innovators Under 35: From Technology Review

Technology Review, MIT's alumni newsletter, put out its annual list of the most interesting innovators under 35 today.

Who's on the list from New England?

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Saturday, August 4, 2007

Robo-Dog Fetches $10 Million in Funding

Boston Dynamics is getting $10 million from DARPA to continue development of BigDog, a robotic dog that may eventually be able to carry equipment for soldiers or run ahead to survey an area (but not fetch a paper, since the robo-dog has no head or jaws.) So far, according to Boston Dynamics, "BigDog has trotted at 3.3 mph, climbed a 35 degree slope and carried a 120 lb load." (In 2004, I wrote about BigDog, along with other robots based on animal models, for the NY Times.)

Here's a video clip of BigDog in action...unbelievably cool when someone tries to knock it over and it regains its footing without falling.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Times Magazine Piece on Sociable Robots

This Times Sunday Magazine piece, which ran yesterday, focuses almost exclusively on "sociable robots" being developed at MIT...and includes some cool video demonstrations. From the story:

    Bill Gates has said that personal robotics today is at the stage that personal computers were in the mid-1970s. Thirty years ago, few people guessed that the bulky, slow computers being used by a handful of businesses would by 2007 insinuate themselves into our lives via applications like Google, e-mail, YouTube, Skype and MySpace. In much the same way, the robots being built today, still unwieldy and temperamental even in the most capable hands, probably offer only hints of the way we might be using robots in another 30 years.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

How iRobot is Like Intel

TIE-Boston put on a really interesting event last night at the MIT Museum: "Mobile and Sociable Robots: At the Leading Edge of Computing."

Cory Kidd from the Media Lab was there, demoing his robotic weight loss coach, which he's hoping to commercialize once he leaves the Lab. I talked with the CTO of Bluefin Robotics, Christopher Wallsmith, about some of their new underwater 'bots that can glide for long periods of time, or hover in place. (Hiawatha wrote a great piece in the Globe earlier this month that included Bluefin.)

But the thing that struck me as most interesting was Helen Greiner's opening talk. (Helen is the co-founder and chairman of iRobot.) Two things struck me, actually.

First was how authentically iRobot has been living up to its mission statement: Build cool stuff, Deliver great product, Make money, and Have fun. They've shipped 2.5 million of their Roomba robotic vaccuum cleaners thus far.

The second thing was that iRobot is the closest thing Boston has to a Google, an Apple, or an Intel: a company that is so clearly the leader in its field that all the best people want to work there (aside from those who're happier in academia). Helen said iRobot now employs about 200 engineers and researchers. These kinds of "magnet" companies not only attract great people, they also make it clear that the region is a center of gravity for their particular industry -- and they start spinning off start-up companies. Q Robotics, one of the other companies on last night's panel, is just such a spin-off. Q CTO Joe Jones was one of the developers of iRobot's Roomba.

That's pretty cool.

(Photo by Jason Grow / Business Week. Chris Brady took some great photos at tonight's event.)

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