Helen Greiner: Roomba Maker Takes to the Skies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Innovators like Greiner are helping make the “drone age” a reality, with promises of a revolution in our security, business practices and commerce. But it could also make it a whole lot easier for people to watch us, when we just want to go off-the-grid.
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.
Engineering may have come naturally, but Greiner’s entrepreneurial skills have been more a product of trial and error. Greiner still remembers going with her father and older brother to a basic programming class at the local Radio Shack in the late 1970s in the early days of computing. The young Helen “found it quite easy to catch on,” she recalls, more so than most of the adults populating the class.
As CyPhy Works’ founder and CEO, she’s now trying to build on the business lessons she learned on the job at iRobot, where she and her co-founders started out with little clue about starting or running a business.
“We knew we wanted to build robots; we just didn’t know what they were,” Greiner says, not to mention how to navigate the whole manufacturing process or develop a marketing strategy. And the company, launched in 1990, didn’t start raising venture capital money until almost a decade in.
That’s all changed with CyPhy Works. While they’ve received funding from the U.S. military for their research, the company also started raising private money early on. And Greiner has a clear sense of how she wants to market her robots this time around.
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.”
Greiner’s not the only one to see the possibility in drones. All the big defense contractors — including the makers of the big armed Predator and Reaper aircraft we think of when we hear the term — are engaged in the field. And so are plenty of smaller, more specialized companies, offering everything from aerial filming drones to drones that can transmit wireless Internet signal.
CyPhy Works, however, has one feature that sets it apart: Its first pair of drones can be attached to a tether — copper microfilament, to be exact — that powers the vehicle and also sends a constant stream of data between them and the user. The tether means the drones won’t run out of power and are resistant to hacking or jamming by a third party — a real risk. Another big advantage: When they’re tethered, Greiner’s flying robots may be able to avoid regulatory restrictions on regular drones.
As it stands now, the Federal Aviation Administration only permits extremely limited use of drones in U.S. airspace, largely for safety and security reasons. But they’re aiming to rewrite the rules, allowing far more commercial use, by 2016. In other words: Boomtime for drone makers is less than two years away.
Privacy advocates are counting down more nervously, warning of the slippery, Orwellian slope to a mass-surveillance society where anyone can spy on anyone with their own camera-equipped drone.
Greiner says she’s as concerned about privacy as anyone, but the issue that should be regulated is invasive photography or videography, not what the camera is mounted on.
Privacy comes into play whenever someone is “pointing a camera with a certain resolution at a certain place,” she says, “but it’s got nothing to do with whether it’s being delivered by a balloon or a drone or on the end of a stick.”
Come 2016, however, there could be a whole lot more cameras mounted on private drones than on sticks or balloons. And that, in itself, is bound to get people nervous.