Anatomy Of A Robot Revolution: Tracing The Origins Of Intuitive Surgical And iRobot


Intuitive Surgical and iRobot vital figures and technologyIllustrations by Hermann Mejia

This is part one of a four-part series.

Robots, robots, and more robots

The year is 1990, and, quite literally, hundreds of robot products from numerous startups have completely failed throughout the previous decade in an attempt to galvanize a new era of robotics—one which would ideally diverge from the industrial robotic arm companies that had dominated the industry until this point in time. The results are in, and they are, at best, exiguous and uninspiring.

While attempting to brave the unknown in both the consumer and industrial markets—with everything from personal robots, to service and security robots, to educational robots, to mobile telepresence robots, to even walking robots—startups seemed to try everything that their imaginations could dream up in an effort to build out a “1.0” version of the robotics industry. Yet, by the early 90s, almost every robotics startup seemed to have a false start and there still remained a great deal of uncertainty as to how the robotics industry would ever gain greater traction, how it would diversify, and what it would look like over the next 30 years. With so many failures in the industry thus far, one would either have to religiously suspend disbelief or be nearly mad to even attempt to start a robotics company.

But two companies emerged from the entrepreneurial robot ashes of the “great robotic flameout of the 80s and 90s”—perhaps a title fitting enough to compliment the “AI Winter” period which had also ebbed and flowed throughout these same two decades.

These two robotics companies, which, in effect, shifted the entire industry into an advanced state with substantial forward momentum, are Intuitive Surgical—which today leads the surgical robotics market with its da Vinci surgical robot, that generates close to $3.5 billion in annual revenue and has a $64 billion market cap—and iRobot—which leads the consumer robotics market with its domestic cleaning robot Roomba, that now sells over one million units per year and generates close to $1 billion in annual revenue.

Their ascendancy has been nothing short of extraordinary. But to better highlight how unusual Intuitive Surgical and iRobot’s success has been—especially given the dismal state of the industry throughout the 80s and early 90s which they emerged from—and how much of an impact they’ve had on the robotics industry since their ascent, one can take a closer look at the robotic products that failed prior to their dominance in contrast with the robotic products that are successful today.

In 1983, the Odex I robot from Odetics, was launched and advertised as “the world’s first commercial walking machine.” It came equipped with a brilliantly engineered set of six legs—that would make even the most agile of quadrupeds envious—allowing it to walk through all kinds of different terrains with the intention of being utilized to take on tasks that humans couldn’t, such as handling radioactive material. The Odex I, and its follow up robot, the Odex II, looked like distant relatives of the walking robots LS3 and SpotMini, which are produced today by Boston Dynamics.

Then there was the Genesis I robot from Droid Systems and the Modulus robot from Sirius. Both were personal mobile robots mass produced in the early to mid-80s that integrated robotic arms. The Genesis I, which was priced at $12,500, had a single rugged arm that could lift a 15 lb load and looked a lot like an ancestor to a single-armed version of the PR2 research robot produced decades later by robotics company Willow Garage. The Modulus robot, in contrast, had an impressive 6 degrees of freedom for each of its two arms, giving it a level of dexterity that was close to what could be achieved kinematically by a modern-day robotic product like Sawyer, the 7-axis arm from Rethink Robotics.

The Hubot, developed by Hubotics in California, was another robot that was brought to market in 1983. This robot, which was priced at $3,495, had a streamlined and almost noble-like appearance with its nearly four-foot tall vertically oriented structure that carried a computer with a keyboard, and could drive around on its own. It also came with a monitor that was built into the top of its chassis which could display a pixelated face to communicate with others or broadcast a live video of a person, making it an early version of what would eventually be known as a mobile telepresence robot. The Hubot looked like a distant cousin of the Beam telepresence robots produced by Suitable Technologies today, and the RP-Vita telepresence robots from InTouch.

The Sentry, which was an indoor security robot developed and manufactured by Denning Mobile Robotics in the mid-80s, had an onboard navigation system and could detect objects using infrared (IR) sensors and an array of 24 ultrasonic sensors. It could patrol for up 12 hours at a time and would transmit an alert if it detected anything unusual within a 150 ft. radius. The Sentry, which was originally priced at $45,000, had a strong resemblance to the K5 security robot produced today by Silicon Valley-based robotics company Knightscope.

Then there was the NOMAD I from Genesis Computer which was a small-scale educational robot that looked like a cross between the MSE-6 repair droid from Star Wars and an Anki Vector robot of today. The NOMAD I robot could be programmed using a Commodore 64 computer and utilized ultrasonic sensors to detect objects. It also came fully equipped with a miniature cargo tray. “Can Nomad Move About? Yes!”, was the optimistic slogan written on its package.

The Kludge mobile robot, which was produced by Cybermation in 1985, was like an early version of an Amazon Kiva warehouse robot since it was designed for material handling and carried the slogan “Modular, Industrial Robots To Go!”

Even Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and one of the earliest pioneers of Silicon Valley, had his hand in this madness. In 1982, he sunk a large part of the fortune he made—from selling Atari to Warner Communications in the 70s—into a robotics company that he founded called Androbot. TOPO, which was the first product that they brought to market in 1983, was a consumer service and educational robot. Then there was TOPO I and TOPO II.  All three generations of this robot sold no more than a little over a thousand units in total, and many of them didn’t even function when they were first purchased by customers. Androbot also went on to create TOPO III, BOB, and FRED, but these robots never made it to market because the company was nearly extinct on arrival and shut down in 1984 only a year after it brought its first robot to market.

Like all the other startups mentioned from this period of the 80s into the early 90s, Androbot failed because it could never gain any real traction in the marketplace with customers. Many of the robot products from this period ended up either selling very few units, or were mass produced in low quantities, and never sold at all. It was one failure after another, and the prospects for the industry appeared to be indefinitely bleak.

But make no mistake, many of these robots were, in fact, quite extraordinary, especially given the limited technology that the entrepreneurs and engineers who built them had available at that time. However, with no true startup ecosystem in place and a lack of funding potential from Capitalists, it seemed nearly impossible to really jump start an industry that required so much upfront capital for its development phases and subsequent manufacturing expenses.  Even with initial government funding, capital from the private sector would still be required for later rounds of investment.

And for each robot that failed, as previously described, there consistently appears to be a modern-day version of a similar kind of robot that has been at least reasonably successful today. In fact, a majority of the successful modern-day robots previously listed, in contrast to the failed robots from decades earlier, were created by alumni of Intuitive Surgical and iRobot. The difference between the failed robotic product and the successful version of that same kind of robotic product today, was because of factors like limited access to funding, limited mass market acceptance, and to some extent—depending on the nature of the robot—limited technological infrastructure such as advanced machine learning, greater processing capacity, and connectivity. But, more importantly, it was the success of Intuitive Surgical and iRobot, and the resulting surge of optimism which would set in motion a new era marked by restored confidence from investors and customers that made the greatest difference.

Early da Vinci and Roomba PatentsUSPTO

Remarkably, just about everything in the establishment of the modern-day robotics industry can also be linked back to Intuitive Surgical and iRobot, whether it be the roots of AI, the evolution of telepresence (along with the birth of the VR industry), the advancement of robotic arms and haptics, the emergence and use of lower cost sensors, the optimization of autonomous mobility, and even the development of the Mars rovers. In fact, a large part of the entire robotics startup ecosystem that exists today, as alluded to previously, can also be linked back directly to Intuitive Surgical and iRobot through both their founders and former employees who have gone on to found many of the other pioneering robotics companies of today. Looking at the history of these two companies is so vast with so many vital components that relate to the evolution of the rest of the industry, that to learn about their history, is to effectively learn about the entire history of robotics.

And while one company was mostly built on the west coast and the other was mostly built on the east coast, the parallels between both companies is compelling. Both companies were launched in 1990 (when considering Computer Motion’s merger with Intuitive). Both companies were initially funded by NASA and then DARPA. Both companies invented their core technologies between Stanford and MIT. Both companies spent the first 10 years of their operations with no real revenue and were in search of a specific application as they worked to refine their technology. Both companies launched what would become their signature products in the early 2000s. Both companies would be brought public in the early to mid-2000s and would each see a massive surge in their growth and stock prices beginning in 2016. Several of the key founding members of each of these companies, not surprisingly, also collaborated with each other at different points in time throughout their journeys.

Above all, what is most notable about Intuitive Surgical and iRobot, is that both companies overcame what was initially perceived to be insurmountable, by building viable robotics companies that generated serious revenue. And, significantly, each individual was fearlessly inventive and uniquely brilliant in their pursuit to create and build a viable robotic technology. They battled through years of arduous engineering work without even knowing exactly what the optimal application of their technology might be. For iRobot, finding an application for the mobile robotic technology that they had methodically refined and pioneered over the years, and then finding the funds to bring such a product to market, would represent a major part of their journey. For Intuitive, it was finding a surgery that their robotic telepresence surgical technology could most appropriately be used for. There were so many unknowns and so much resistance from external forces, that tenacity was an essential component to their success.

And while this story about the creation of the modern-day robotics industry mostly evolves in three core places—Stanford, MIT, and NASA— it, strangely, begins in a place that is all too familiar to anyone who knows about the history of technology, especially the birth of the personal computer industry.

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