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iRobot develops new breed of telepresence robot

Ava 500 robots let users move around with colleagues from remote locations.

iRobot

Ava 500 robots let users move around with colleagues from remote locations.

In the 20th century, the jet engine shrunk the planet and made it possible to get nearly anywhere within a day.

This century, some believe that telepresence robots will let us travel those same distances — sort of — in less than a minute. Forget about lost luggage and stiff knees.

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One of the most sophisticated models among this new breed of robots was introduced last year by Bedford-based iRobot Corp., better known as the maker of bots that can investigate explosive devices or simply clean floors.

Unlike the typical wall-mounted videoconferencing system or Skype video call on your laptop, a telepresence bot lets you “log in” to a device sitting anywhere in the world. That device can roam freely around a factory floor or lab and interact with people just as if you were there in person. You can even join colleagues in the cafeteria to chat over coffee.

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The Ava 500 model from iRobot, which costs about $70,000, is among the more expensive telepresence bots available. It uses high-def videoconferencing technology and can make its own maps of an office, so users don’t need to navigate around themselves. They can simply click “Don’s Office, Warehouse,” and the robot drives itself there. Your face pops up on the screen when it arrives, and you can start a conversation.

IRobot chief executive Colin Angle acknowledges that basic speakerphones and videoconferencing technology can enable employees to participate in meetings in a conference room. But “what Ava does is enable a conversation with someone in their cubicle, in a hallway, or in a lab. I can meet with anyone I want to, regardless of their location,” he said.

At iRobot, the company’s chief technology officer is based in Pasadena, Calif., even though 85 percent of his staff works in Bedford. “That decision was based on the fact that I felt he could be sufficiently present in Bedford, given what the robot can do,” Angle said.

The company has been working on videoconferencing robots since at least 2000, when it introduced the $5,000 iRobot LE. It wasn’t a big hit. But Angle said improved technology finally gives a customer the ability to go somewhere via robot and feel like you’ve “projected your charisma” without hopping on a plane, and without glitches.

“The key metric for us is people’s utilization of the robot — watching it grow, and not diminish, after the initial trial period,” he said.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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