In the late 1980’s, MIT was a place where a generation that grew up on the writing of Isaac Asimov, Star Trek, and the Star Wars films was trying to make the worlds that they had found in science fiction a reality — albeit one without robots as overlords and all powerful droids trying to destroy humanity.
It was during this period that Helen Greiner met Rodney Brooks and Colin Angle at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. Somewhat dismayed with the pace of robotic innovation at the school, the trio would go on to found their own robotic lab outside of Boston, with the literary name of iRobot. The company is best known for its commericial robot vacuum the Roomba, as well as many of the robots it developed for the military, including the Packbot robot used to both identify and dispose of explosive in place like Iraq and to survey disaster scenes like the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
But after years of being — literally — on the the ground in robotics, Greiner set her sight on a more lofty vision. In 2008, she helped found CyPhy Works a drone company that makes flying products for both consumer use and military reconnaissance (The company’s partners include Motorola as well as pretty much every branch of the U.S. military establishment).
CyPhy Works has been in the news recently for two reasons. One, it is in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign that has already raised close to $ 500,000 since launching a few days ago. Second, the company revealed today that it had receive an undisclosed investment from Draper Nexus bringing it total amount of funding to $ 13 million.
I caught up with Greiner this afternoon, moments before she went off to celebrate Memorial Day the only way a drone company founder knows how.
How did you first end up at MIT and then at iRobot?
I saw Star Wars when I was eleven and I wanted to build robots ever since. So I really went to MIT to learn robots, and I learned a lot of great things there. But it turned out, at the time, they really didn’t know how to build robots so I had to start a company to do that.
We co-founded it in 1990 and it was one of the longest overnight successes you’ll ever see. People hadn’t heard of us until 2002 when we deployed the Packbot and put the Roomba on the market. But before that, we were developing all sorts of different robots.
Nothing could be closer to the ground than the Roomba. So naturally, after years in the carpets you wanted to explore the clouds. How did CyPhy Works come about?
We had taken iRobot public and had a lot of great robots on the market, but I saw a great opportunity in drones.
They were just taking off, so to speak; they were so powerful. You could get to much more places with them. Things on the ground have so many obstacles they have to maneuver around, drones can just fly over anything. When you get above the tree tops there is basically a traffic lane for the drones to use. Like a drone highway waiting for all these drones to be running in it.
Drones have gotten so much attention (much of it not very positive) for their role in military operations in the Middle East. How can you change that perception with consumer drones like the one you’ve launched through Kickstarter?
We think we’ve taken the word ‘drone’ and made it so that people are now as likely to think of the kid flying a drone at the beach or drones delivering things.
It’s sort of like the Roomba. When people said robots, they used to think of the military or [toy] dog robots. So when I would said, “I build robots,” to someone, they would be like, “Oh, you build dogs!” I’d say, “No, I don’t build dogs, that’s a tiny, tiny part of the space.”
It’s the same thing with drones. The military drones are just a tiny part of the space. And once drone delivery happens, people will come to see the word in the larger picture.
What differentiates what you are building compared to other consumer drone companies in the same market like the Parrot or DGI?
We have really groundbreaking technology. Basically, it flies level. All other drones tilt into the motion. Which means all their sensors tilt. So other companies go to great length to get rid of the tilt.
We pulled the camera into the vehicle so it makes control more easily which you can control from our cell phone interface…The interface we have is similar to how you take a picture or shoot video on the phone. Becasue of that, we can also do realtime social sharing. And the price. The drone costs $ 495 through the Kickstarter campaign and they will eventually retail for about $ 600.
We have also developed a geofencing tool that is used by just walking the boundary where you want the drone to stay and the drone stays inside where you walked and won’t go through the geofence. It’s very, very intuitive.
So you guys just raised an undisclosed amount of money and you are doing a crowdfunding campaign?
We’ve raised a total of $ 13.5 million. And we’ve got some great venture capitalists behind us like General Catalyst, Lux Ventures, and Felecis Capital. And recently we’ve got people coming who are helping to drive the industrial business, like Motorola Solutions.
And, this week, we announced that Draper Nexus came , and they are very strong in Japan, so they are helping us take the products internationally.
So why are you doing a Kickstarter campaign while you are getting backed by venture firms?
I’ve done a lot of consumer launches, and the old way of doing things was doing a focus group or two, and then you get feedback that might be relevant or it might not. People weren’t really buying the product. They may be your customers and they may not.
What we got with Kickstarter, is that you don’t just have people interested in buying the product. They are interested in buying it in February. They are a passionate group of users and we have more communications with them.
How is not only being a woman in technology, but in a traditionally much more male-dominated industries like robotics?
Being a female, like everything else in life is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it might be more difficult beccasue it is not what people expect. But on the other hand, people remember me. They might not remember my name all the time, or remember me as “The Robot Lady.”
I’ve done many, many conferences where I was the only woman, but its getting better lately.
People call you the ‘Robot Lady’? Sounds like some sort of super hero.
The Robot Lady, ah yeah. I’m doing a Reddit AMA next week and they’ve promoted me as “The First Lady of Robots” and the “Drone Diva.”
Those are pretty good nicknames.
Yeah, I don’t mind those.
What are you doing this Memorial Day weekend? Any big plans, trips?
I might go to a beach and do some drone flying.