Helen Greiner has done more to bring robots into the mainstream of both civilian and military life than perhaps any other entrepreneur. The decidedly energetic 47-year-old is the co-founder of iRobot, which created the PackBot and Talon bomb disposal robots that came to be used widely by U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, transforming the way that soldiers dealt with improvised explosive devices. Concurrently, Greiner and iRobot developed the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner that has become a global phenomenon. Since it was introduced in 2002, over 10 million Roombas have been sold globally.
Now, Greiner is turning her attention to the skies. Her new venture, CyPhy Works, is developing aerial drones—Greiner sometimes prefers to call them “flying robots”—for both civilian and security applications. If iRobot’s success in transforming robots from a niche technology into a common tool is anything to go by, CyPhy Works is a company to watch closely. Through CyPhy, Helen is seeking to demonstrate that flying robots will be good for society, security, and industry. Hers is a vision for a future in which drones make life more convenient and safer in everything from photography to emergency response.
We spoke with Helen to learn about the her plans for CyPhy Works, her predictions for the future, and what motivates her as she works to make drones a part of everyday life.
Interview by Arthur Holland Michel
Center for the Study of the Drone How did you come to work on unmanned systems and robotics?
Greiner Well, I saw Star Wars when I was eleven, on the big screen—that was in 1977—and I’ve wanted to build robots ever since then. I went to MIT to learn how, and learned a lot of good things there, but they didn’t really know how to build great robots, so I started a company called iRobot right out of grad school. iRobot is the company that makes the PackBot military ground robots and also the Roomba vacuuming robots.
Drone What was it about robots that interested you?
Greiner R2D2 had a personality, an agenda, it could save the universe. It was really more than a machine. So my goal has always been to build things that are more than machines.
Drone And I guess there’s a sort of R2D2 quality to the Roomba vacuum cleaner.
Greiner Yes there is! It’s your personal cleaning droid. But also to the PackBot, which is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers and thousands civilians. PackBot hasn’t saved the universe yet, but that’s quite a good track record.
“We’re building drones. I like to think of them as just flying robots.”
Drone What was the philosophy behind iRobot when you created the company? What were you hoping to achieve?
Greiner We wanted to have careers in robotics, and at the time there wasn’t a lot of robot companies around. I think at the time there was a big robot investment boom and bust in the ‘80s that put a lot of people off, but we didn’t know about any of that. If you looked around, you had to be in a government lab or in academia to do robots, and we wanted to do it as a business. To get robots into people’s hands. When you look at academic robots, some of them are really cool and innovative, but as people graduate, or move on to their next research project, the robots kind of die.
Drone So you wanted to bring robots to the masses, in a sense?
Greiner Our original vision probably wouldn’t have been as bold as “to the masses.” One of our original goals was looking at robots for space applications. Putting the first robotic steps on the moon, potentially sponsored by a large shoe company. That kind of thing.
Drone Now you have a new venture called CyPhy Works. Can you tell me a little about that?
Greiner We’re building drones. I like to think of them as just flying robots. After I took iRobot public, I just saw a lot of potential in drones. When you look around your office space, if you have a drone moving around, it’s probably going to be in free space. Whereas anything on the ground, it’s going to have cables, and wires, and the desk, and people, and lots of other stuff. It’s the same thing outdoors, above the treetops, and power-lines, its free space—an empty highway waiting for the drones. By hovering, they’re able to just get anywhere, and that’s really powerful compared to moving around on the ground.
Drone Why is it that you prefer to call them flying robots than drones or unmanned aerial vehicles?
Greiner Unmanned aerial vehicles is a mouthful, and “unmanned” almost implies that it could have a man inside. The ones we build are pretty small, so they couldn’t be manned. I would have said “flying robots” a while back, but I’m going to go with “drones” because it’s so easy to say. And once CEO Jeff Bezos said that Amazon is building “delivery drones,” it’s what people really know these systems by today.
Drone Do you hold the view that the word “drone” has negative associations?
Greiner Words change meaning over time. Now people might think of delivery drones, or they have a friend who has a drone at a beach or a park, and they’re as likely to think about that. There was a time when I was at iRobot when you’d say “I run a robot company,” and people would say “Oh, like the dog!” They meant the Sony AIBO Dog. That was the robot getting all the press at the time. Words change all the time, and now people are as likely to say, “Oh, like a vacuum!” I don’t think of the English language as a static thing. I think people will come to use “drone” to mean small drones, the aerial photography drone and the delivery drones, as they’ll be more present in their everyday life.
Drone In this work with CyPhy, what is motivating you? Do you have vision for the role that drones, that flying robots, can play in society?
Greiner Absolutely. I think that people will fly them to do inspections, tasks around the house. But at the end of the day, they will be using them to take pictures, and to share the moments in their life over social media. And then in about five years time they will start getting packages delivered to them by drones. I order most of my stuff online, and I always have to wait for it to be delivered. With a delivery drone, it will get to you in thirty minutes, which will be instant gratification. I’m doing this because I saw the potential of what drones could do for people, and how helpful and fun they could be. And when you’ve got a product that’s both helpful and fun I think that that’s a no-brainer.
Drone Are you also hoping to create drones for civil applications, or emergency services?
Greiner We’re very strong with military and commercial applications. For example, we have a strategic partnership with Motorola Solutions. They’re the guys who provide much of the electronic equipment—radios and such—for police forces and firefighters across the country. Drones provide them with more information, more situational awareness around a bad situation, and help them make good decisions. And then on a more commercial front, our systems sit above a facility and they’re constantly monitoring what’s going on. You can use it for safety, security, oversight, management, detection, just seeing what’s going on. You start by monitoring the facility, but then you can start managing the facility automatically using the data that the drones provide.
Drone We’ve seen that small unmanned systems have given the military a tactical edge. Is that a space that CyPhy is interested in as well?
Greiner Yes, we are, but using our commercial UAVs. They are essential for force protection, being able to see if anything is approaching, getting situational awareness around a combat outpost or a convoy.
Drone The technology is still in its infancy. What is some of the potential that we might see drones having that hasn’t yet been realized?
Greiner Delivering packages to your home or wherever you are will be a huge application for drones. Who has time to go to stores these days, many of us are ordering stuff online everyday, but they take a day or two to get delivered. With drones it will be an instant transaction, instant gratification. If you are not at home they can come to your location by using the GPS in your cell phone.
On the home front, they’ll be able to automatically check on your property to make sure everything is ok, even when you are on vacation. Your kids will love them as they will be able to deliver forgotten homework, take lunches to the park, and even play games.
Drone And some of these things require the technology to get a bit more advanced, correct?
Greiner I’d say it requires more work on the applications, rather than the drone technology. When you want to monitor your home or your facility for trespassers, it doesn’t require a better drone, it requires better analytic software for the data that’s coming from the drone. Also more sensory systems, manipulators, and specialized sensors for detecting gases or pollution. There’s so many things you can do with the same drone. They’re very versatile platforms.
Drone In terms of delivery drones, realistically, when do you think we will see this happening at scale?
Greiner It will start in five years, but at scale I’d say it will take ten years. It’s just like the internet. These things do take some time to scale.
Drone But in terms of pilot programs, in a few cities?
Greiner We’ll be running pilot deliveries (actually deliveries with no pilots) well before then, in sparsely populated areas. But it has to be proven safe and reliable before we can tackle flying over a city autonomously.
Drone When you look at the U.S. public debate around commercial drones, which in turn is informing the regulatory process, do you see progress in how people are understanding drones? And whether there’s progress in people accepting the technology now as opposed to say two or three years ago?
Greiner Yeah, I think that there’s been a big change, a big difference. Not everyone wants to get on board. There will always be luddites, who probably don’t like computers, or the internet, or cell phone systems as well. But as you shift from thinking about privacy to thinking “what’s the drone going to do for me?” It’s going to deliver my packages. When you’re seeing a drone at the beach or the pool that a neighborhood kid is flying, maybe you start to see the great features, and what the drone can do for you, rather than worry about privacy issues. I’m always concerned about privacy, as much as anyone, but that’s really a camera issue. People should be focusing on the legality of putting a camera where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, and it shouldn’t matter if it’s a drone or a balloon or a stick, or a telephoto lens from the road. The carrying mechanism shouldn’t be the issue. It should be who’s pointing a camera, and should a person have a reasonable expectation of privacy, for example in their home. I think yes. I wouldn’t like a drone flying up to my window, but I also wouldn’t like it if somebody were snapping pictures with a telephoto lens from the road. Or, in an apartment in the city, I wouldn’t like someone snapping photos from the apartment next door. It’s really about pointing a camera at a place where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The drone’s just a red herring for privacy. Drones make a good headline. But it’s not really the issue. It’s about cameras and pointing them. So if we’re going to concentrate as a society on making rules, let’s make rules that are going to be effective about pointing cameras at people. Drones have been very few compared to the number of cameras.
“There was no way you could fly a drone commercially before this past year. And that was, I think, a mistake.”
Drone And what about the FAA’s process of integrating drones into domestic airspace? Do you feel like it’s a complex task they have, or are there technological fixes that they’re not taking in to account?
Greiner They were moving slowly. There was no way you could fly a drone commercially before this past year. And that was, I think, a mistake, because people were doing it all over the country, anyway. A lot of businesses were doing it. You don’t want to make rules where the ones who get ahead are the ones who break the rules, encouraging other people to break the rules. But now they come out with a mechanism, where you can fly commercially, called the 333 Exemption. Now they’re not slowing it down—there’s a process that all these rules, the aerospace rules, have to go through to become a law, and they’re in that now. So it’s moving forward, and I believe it’s now moving forward as rapidly as the can reasonably move it forward. Because this is a process that exists. It’s not their process, it’s the country’s process.
Drone Is there anything that you would like to see changed, either in terms of how the FAA is operating, or how society is responding to this technology, to move things forward?
Greiner The rules for hobbyists have been in place for awhile and hobbyists have been tremendously safe. Businesses are going to be more careful because they have more liability. There are already rules: you can’t put people in danger, for example. All these rules already exist. I think the FAA should open up commercial applications, under the same rules that already exist for hobbyists. And then everyone’s playing by the same rulebook. It makes no sense that hobbyists have one set of rules and commercial industry has another set.
Drone Given that the drone they are using are the same?
Greiner The systems are the same. There is a fine line over what is a commercial application. Someone might fly for a hobby but then they put a video online and get click-through money, and the FAA is saying that that’s not OK because it’s commercial now. There’s a fine line between what’s commercial and what’s a hobby these days. I think it should just be one set of rules if you are flying a drone in the United States.
Drone Do you think that there are any credible concerns that people have when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles? Are there any capabilities that people should be aware of, and sort of respect, I guess, in terms of using drones?
Greiner I think the FAA has somewhat hit the nail on the head by the rules they proposed. Delivery drones wouldn’t yet be legal because they are out of line-of-sight. But now it’s up to the industry to prove that what they’re doing is safe. The onus is on the industry. OK, you want delivery drones, you have to prove that what you’re building is safe and meets these requirements. Just like aircraft meet certain requirements. I think where the FAA hasn’t done a good job is, there should be a way to easily get an experimental license. So if it’s on the property that you own or rent, and done in a safe manner, you should be able to more easily experiment with different applications and different types of aircraft. One of the things Amazon ran into is that it applied for a license, but by the time they got an experimental license they had moved on to the next design. It needs to be more broad. Not allow them commercially over cities, yes, but being able to test them on private property in a safe and compelling manner, and that the FAA hasn’t really done yet.
“Now it’s up to the industry to prove that what they’re doing is safe.”
Drone Do you believe that the civilian and commercial market for drones is going to become larger than the military market soon, as some people have speculated?
Greiner It’s such a different animal, it’s hard to say. The military is spending many millions of dollars on one Predator, and civilians are spending over a thousand of dollars on one of these aircraft. So it takes many thousands of those. And then you’ve got other aircraft, which are even more expensive, although the military doesn’t buy that many of them. That said, over time, certainly commercial and consumer are going to dominate this. But it’s not in the next two years.
Drone There are different theories about how quickly other countries are going to have access to this technology and deploy it. Do you lend credence to the view that proliferation will happen quickly? Or do you believe that it’s not going to be as rapid as some people predict?
Greiner No, I think it will proliferate very quickly. The technology is pretty well-understood at this point. Not just the small size drones, but also larger systems. There’s more engineering, but it’s essentially the same types of technology. I think people see the potential of these programs. There are countries that are looking at getting drones. But those aren’t the drones that we build here. Not at all. Our drones are 15 pounds or less. There are no Predators in our backyard here!
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