More competitors urgently needed: iRobot tech chief

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo

The technology chief of major U.S. robotics firm iRobot Corp. wants Sony Corp. to resume its robot business and hopes more Japanese makers will turn out commercial units to encourage investment in the industry.

In a recent interview, iRobot Chief Technology Officer Paolo Pirjanian, whose company produces the floor cleaning Roomba, said that he welcomes competition and that Japanese firms should capitalize on their advanced technologies, such as those in Honda Motor Co.’s Asimo.

“We would like to see more commercialization of these (technologies) into products because that can fuel more investment into developing more technologies and advancing the field,” said Pirjanian.

Calling Sony one of Japan’s leading robotics companies, Pirjanian said he regrets the giant had to exit the industry because of its deteriorating TV and sound system businesses.

“I’m hoping they will come back to it soon,” he said.

He pointed out that many firms entering robotics fail to find the right balance between technological development and profitability.

“Robotics is complex and there are hard problems to be solved, and usually the solutions become very expensive,” he said, adding that the use of a relatively inexpensive processor helped iRobot offset Roomba’s costs.

Released in 2004, more than 600,000 Roomba units had been sold in Japan as of August 2012. While it costs from around ¥50,000 to ¥80,000, depending on model and function range, the most expensive version is the most popular, iRobot said.

“What we are learning in Japan and most other markets is that people that understand how robots can improve their lives are willing to pay and go for the best one,” Pirjanian said.

Aside from Roomba, which is targeted at consumers, the company is also known for its PackBot military robots, which are often used in removing land mines.

A pair of PackBots was shipped to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant for disaster management after three of its reactors suffered core meltdowns in March 2011.

“The reason that we could deploy the PackBot for Fukushima is because we had a profitable business behind it,” Pirjanian said.

In the long run, he said iRobot plans to progress into elderly care, calling it a “massive social issue that every region in the world has to deal with,” but which Japan is encountering more rapidly and on a greater scale than other countries.

He said Roomba has already taken “the first step” in addressing the needs of many seniors, and that iRobot will explore the possibility of building robots that are able to perform a wider range of household chores.

Pirjanian also noted the great potential that lies ahead for the robotics industry.

“The car is probably going to be the ultimate robot of the century,” and since Japan’s car industry is the major player in vehicle automation, these technologies could be transferred to make other products as well, he said.

“Many people say robotics today is where the PC industry was in the 1970s — and we know what happened after that,” Pirjanian said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”