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Vacuum king calls for end to robotics hype

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RoboBiz Colin Angle this week demonstrated the authority that comes with being a robotic vacuum magnate. He told the crowd here at the Robo Business conference that they'd let consumers and businesses down with sub par products. They had supplied more hype than innovation and could use something akin to steroids for their imaginations if they hoped to get the robot industry moving in the right direction.

You might question how much authority Angle really has to berate the robotics industry. Sure, he runs iRobot, which has produced the most successful consumer robot device - the Roomba - and managed to create a public company with a $500m market capitalization. But the vast majority of iRobot's success - at least in the public's eye - comes from selling an intelligent vacuum. It's hardly the stuff we were promised back in the 1950s when the idea of a cooking, cleaning, mowing, folding, driving robot with a flair for sexual favors seemed just around the corner.

However, Angle - or more precisely iRobot - has captured the hearts and minds of the robotics industry and taken on an authoritative role. Hardly a speech passed during the two day Robo Business event without someone mentioning iRobot or wanting to be linked to the company. The sale of 2m Roombas have given iRobot a street cred that those still working on spider prototypes desire with their every fiber. The vacuum maker has given the mass market robotics industry something it desperately needed - a success story. Angle gets to feed off this role as a legitimizer of the robotics pursuit.

During his keynote presentation, the angular Angle noted that the "robot demo industry is doing just fine." Groups focusing on making walking robots and the like "have substantially slowed the industry."

"We are not waiting on the technology. We are waiting on good business models and ideas."

That's a tough message for a crowd of dreamers who spend most of their time hammering away at one-off products that cost of millions of dollars to produce. At the same time, the attendees seemed to like Angle's speech. They were like children needing to feel reprimanded after doing something naughty.

"The industry does not need hype," Angle told The Register in an interview. "It needs good business and good products. I want the industry to be taken seriously. Saying walking robots are a distraction is about saying the industry doesn't need smoke and mirrors to be a fantastic industry."

Of course, the robotics industry is in fact relying on at least smoke for the moment to remain viable. Close to 90 per cent of the companies exhibiting at Robo Business were shooting for military pork with devices that can help blow things up, watch things blow up or carry luggage for soldiers who are busy blowing things up.

The Roomba may fade soon as iRobot's flashiest money maker if the company can keep pushing its PackBot devices to the Army. So far, iRobot has shipped 500 of these systems which can motor around Iraq and Afghanistan carrying different payloads for things like disarming bombs, snooping caves or finding snipers. There's more than $300m in military funding to be had for the company that can deliver the best robots for disarming Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

"We've received $42m against that figure thus far," Angle said.

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