Falling in love with R2D2 changed her life. How Star Wars inspired today’s most popular robots.
When Helen Greiner was 10 years old her family went to see Star Wars. It changed her life. She fell in love with one of the characters – not Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Princess Leia.
She fell in love with the little android R2D2. And it changed her life.
By then Greiner’s family had moved from London to New York. Growing up, she became a science whiz –stealing her older brother’s radio controlled toys, and using the family’s Radio Shack TRS-90 computer to control their movements.
She set her sights on engineering, studying robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) at MIT. In 1990, she partnered with two people she met there — student Colin Angle, and computer science lab director Rodney Brooks, to launch iRobot.
They started out building robots for university research labs. But it wasn’t easy. The three worked 18-hour days, writing computer code and soldering parts. After maxing out credit cards and racking up $100,000 in loans they sold just 60 machines.
They hit pay dirt when they began serving military and industrial customers — building robots that search for underwater mines, look for booby traps, and repair oil wells deep underground. Their robots even searched New York City office buildings after 911 to make sure the structures were sound. The company also built a small robot for National Geographic that crawled through 5,000-year-old shafts in the Pyramid of Giza. It gave the world its first view of the Queen’s Chamber.
iRobot’s most famous product is something you may have used yourself — the Roomba – one of the first domestic robots — a hands-free robot vacuum cleaner. As Greiner explains it, “For 13 years, when we introduced ourselves, people would say, ‘Can you make a robot that will clean my house?’”
In 2003 the team responded with the Roomba, a small disc-shaped vacuum cleaning robot which they marketed for $200. It uses sensors and advanced navigation technology to maneuver around furniture and avoid stairs. When it’s done cleaning, it stops, beeps and turns itself off.
The Roomba put iRobot on the map, earning the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Oprah Winfrey even named it one of her “favorite things.”
Today the company that started in a scientist’s apartment employs hundreds of people making robots for home, office, education, maritime and defense applications. Its vision is to put robots into everyone’s hands. And change the world.
Helen Greiner exemplifies an axiom featured on our website: Pursue your passion. Her girlhood love affair with R2D2 led to everyday robots for the world.