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Helen Greiner: Roomba maker talks about her new drones #Droneday #WomenInSTEM


OZY has a great feature on Helen Grainer, creator of the Roomba and her new venture into the skies.

Helen Greiner lives less than an hour’s drive from Boston. So on that April day last year when the city went into lockdown, two unapprehended terrorists loose on the streets, the then-45-year-old engineer reacted the way most people in the area — and the country — did: surfing the Internet to try and figure out what the hell was going on.

That’s how she came across a tweet with a picture of the Tsarnaev brothers’ car, abandoned, windows blown out, after their fateful shoot-out with police in Watertown, Mass. Approaching the car in the picture, silhouetted by a spotlight, is a robotic contraption that looks a bit like WALL-E, but with a flatter base and much longer, hinged metal neck protruding skyward, a camera on top. It was, in fact, Greiner’s robot, or at least one she’d helped design, build and market during her 18 years at iRobot, the company she co-founded straight out of MIT.


“I was just so proud the Packbot was helping in such a chaotic and risky situation,” she said when recounting the story in a TEDx Boston talk later the same year.

Greiner and her colleagues made their names with Roomba, the “vacuum cleaning robot” that zips around your home and sucks up dust bunnies without your having to lift a finger. But it’s Packbot — one of the earliest robots the military used to do surveillance and detect hidden bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan — that’s been her biggest source of pride. Well, up until about a year and a half ago.

That’s when Greiner’s new company, CyPhy Works, unveiled the latest members of her growing robot family — EASE and PARC. Like Roomba and Packbot, they’re both compact-sized robotic devices that are remotely controlled by their human users. But unlike their land-bound predecessors, EASE and PARC are taking to the skies, part of the wave of unmanned aerial vehicles, more popularly known as drones, being developed for military and, increasingly, commercial use.

Greiner’s always been in love with robots, ever since her parents took the Long Island 11-year-old to see Star Wars and she first glimpsed R2D2 mixing it up on-screen. Fortunately, she had a natural aptitude for math and science, which she’d need in spades to complete her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and her master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science, both from MIT. She also had parents — a chemist-turned-businessman father and a nursery-school-teacher mother with an interest in science education — who nurtured those skills…

…It’s the same sort of progression the drone industry, in general, is following. Start with the U.S. military, CyPhy Works’ current client, where the company’s small drones, affixed with video cameras and other data monitoring devices, can be used for what she calls “protection and inspection” out in the field. Then expand into the private sector, which the company is starting to do now, though Greiner won’t disclose whom they’re working with. What she will say is that there’s a wide range of industries where her drones can be used, not just for inspection of, say, a cell tower or oil rig, but also regular monitoring of a private facility, whether that’s a warehouse or a field of cabbage. Down the line, she expects the industry will arrive at Jeff Bezos’ much-hyped vision — delivery drones and other urban uses.

Greiner says she became attracted to the idea of drones after years of working with ground-based robots — and seeing their limitations.

“There’s all the things on the ground that impede your space,” she points out. In contrast, “If you get up to 8 feet high” in the air, “it’s pretty much free space.”

Read more.

Welcome to drone day on the Adafruit blog. Every Monday we deliver the latest news, products and more from the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), quadcopter and drone communities. Drones can be used for video & photography (dronies), civil applications, policing, farming, firefighting, military and non-military security work, such as surveillance of pipelines. Previous posts can be found via the #drone tag and our drone / UAV categories.

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