iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT): Redefining Telepresence

Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, CEO & Co-Founder In 1970, Life magazine published an article about a Stanford University research project that involved the construction of the first-ever “electronic person” named Shakey. This droid was a six-foot-tall robot on wheels with an embedded video camera, designed to be entirely autonomous, and independent to make decisions based on the information about its environment. But, Shakey’s degree of autonomy was much more limited than what Life’s Promethean claimed. At that time as the robotics industry was at the nascent stage, the features stapled by the researchers into Shakey were flimsy; the bot was slow and halting, and its battery would die after a few minutes of juddering operation. Eventually, Shakey was scrapped. But the first autonomous bot became the inspiration for the robotics industry to enter into the bloodstream of modern technologies and breathe life into an advanced generation of robots such as Ava 500.

“Want to work from home? Send Ava 500 instead to the office!” This was the bold mission-statement of iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) when it first laid out the plan to build a unique autonomous telepresence robot, Ava 500. It isn’t another R2-D2-sized telepresence or novelty device that people could control with their iPad to make a video call. The Ava 500 is an autonomous, high-end audio, HD video, top-of-the-line telepresence robot which is designed to be the manager’s surrogate in a boardroom meeting. Embedded with Cisco TelePresence EX60, Ava 500 allows executives to be at the courtside of the meetings and conversations without leaving their cabins. “We’ve been interested in remote presence for more than a decade and we believe this space will be important,” says Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, CEO & Co- Founder. “Through our Ava 500, we are allowing professionals and the enterprises from the opposite corner of the world to be present under one roof. And, you don’t have to be a techy person to make it work.”

A Human Robot

Carbonite—a Boston based online backup tech firm—turned a lot of heads when they hired an employee who wasn’t a human; Ava 500. After years of experimenting with video and phone-conferencing technologies like Skype and WebEx, Mohamad Ali, Carbonite’s CEO chose Ava 500 to take the efficiency level of his company to a whole new level. Ali said the telepresence robot gives the company’s engineers who are working in remote offices a chance to interact easily with employees at the Boston headquarters.

Ava 500 can be brought on board by any organization, regardless of size and industry, without having to worry about its performance or maintenance.

Through our Ava 500, we are allowing professionals and the enterprises from the opposite corner of the world to be present under one roof

With the floor plan of the building already mapped in its system, the robot can move in any direction, safely self-navigate across the rooms, and avoid colliding with other objects on the way. Ava 500 adjusts its height to maintain the “eye contact” for the sake of comfortable conversation and also alters the direction if it senses people in the path, and returns to its charging station after attending the meetings.

Ava 500 also allows personnel to keep an eye on the processes or facilities where they earlier couldn’t reach. A technician can visit a datacenter located in a remote location for standard assessment or have a real-time conversation with the management team of the datacenter facility. “This is less about the robot and more about you traveling to your meeting,” adds Angle. “The Ava 500 gives you a spot at the white board, and a seat across the desk from the person you are meeting with. It delivers an experience as if you were there.”

Buzzing Around the Corner

David Evans, the former Chief Futurist at Cisco expresses his sentiments about his experience with Ava 500 and why it is one step ahead from its competitors. “What differentiates the Ava 500 from other robots on the market is that it’s autonomous, it figures out how to get to your meeting, avoids people, and other obstacles.” Evans believes that right now the business world is confronting a perfect storm—a global distributed work force, spiraling travel costs, and need to keep tabs on everything. “With the Ava 500, after a while you forget you’re talking to a machine, you’re talking to another human being or it’s not just a flat screen,” says Evans. “Ava meets the end-goal, which is a rich immersive conversation, and technology shouldn’t get in the way.”

The Ava 500 was built around the Cisco’s Ava bot, the goal of which was to produce an easy-to-implement, versatile, and affordable robot platform for security and healthcare applications. iRobot also collaborated with Cisco to develop RP-Vita—which was hailed as a “telemedicine solution,” or basically a telepresence bot for hospitals that gives doctors remote access to patients and on-site care teams.

It was a moment of pride and exhilaration especially for the company’s shareholders when RP-Vita got its clearance from FDA four years as the stock rose sharply, following RP-Vita’ approval and its release in the market. The bot later became an extension of the doctors; rocketing healthcare to a new stratosphere of growth.
In cases where doctors couldn’t respond to the emergency calls in a hospital due to the geographical constraints, the telepresence bot can help them in assessing the patient’s situation. Used for telemedicine—a consultation between a patient and doctor via an electronic device, the RP-VITA is composed of a solid base with a television screen at the top, just like its cousin Ava 500. With an average human height and width, the machine can stroll through hospital hallways. The screen on the RP-VITA doesn’t just allow patient and doctor to see each other; the robot includes a powerful camera, microphone, and software that enables a doctor to examine patients at high resolution. The machine can be used to collect data about each patient, allow medical professionals to communicate with each other, and give to the patients’ family members an easy consultation with the doctor. RP-VITA also allows critical care doctors, surgeons, and pharmacists to dial in remotely to a hospital room where a patient is being treated.

"The Ava 500 was built around the Cisco’s Ava bot, the goal of which was to produce an easy-to-implement, versatile, and affordable robot platform"

Since its unveiling, over 1,000 RP-VITA machines are now at use in medical offices and hospitals around the U.S.

Charles W. Atwood, MD, is director of the sleep disorders program at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System. While he doesn’t use an RP-VITA, he works with patients in rural Pennsylvania and has been using telemedicine for about 15 years; dating back to when the technology wasn’t as streamlined as it is today. “We started seeing patients using telemedicine who had already been diagnosed with sleep disorders,” he says. As far as the RP-VITA goes, “I think it’s an evolutionary step forward from what we currently can do.”

Spreading the Roots

Looking farther ahead, iRobot wants to expand the hybrid autonomous telepresence capabilities of its bots in security and other industrial processes. The iRobot is already in the radar of the commercial market, with its Roomba 980 vacuuming and Scooba 450 floor scrubbing robots that are making its presence felt. The robotics company wants to remain committed to building droids that not only bring value in the business world, but improve the quality of life and safety standards worldwide. The vision will also require iRobot to stay ahead of the learning curve and its competitors as the industry rises to unravel new opportunities in the coming future.


Bedford, MA

Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, CEO & Co-Founder

Designs and builds robots for a new level of collaboration for office environments and other facilities