IRobot CEO Rolls Out Nonprofit, RISE, Focused on Eco-Robots

Xconomy Boston — 

Colin Angle was diving off the coast of Bermuda with his wife, Erika, when he saw some unusual fish: bright stripes, big spines, slow-moving.

The captain of their boat said they were lionfish, an invasive species that has been wreaking havoc on fish stocks and reef ecosystems in the western Atlantic. Lionfish populations are hard to control because they reproduce en masse, live in deep water, and have no known predators (those spines are venomous). Knowing who Angle was, the captain suggested he design a robot to capture the fish.

Now, if anything gets Angle excited, it’s an urgent mission that robots can undertake. He is the co-founder and CEO of iRobot, maker of the Roomba and various other home robots. The company previously built military and undersea robots as well.

“As iRobot has evolved and focused in the home, we lost internally the mission and capability to go and respond to environmental crises,” Angle says, referring to cleanup efforts by the company’s robots in Fukushima and the Gulf of Mexico. “Personally, that made me feel something needed to be added back into my life.”

That something is now called Robots In Service of the Environment—an independent nonprofit that’s been in the works since 2015, but is just starting to talk about its progress. Co-founded by Angle and run by executive director John Rizzi, RISE is first going after the lionfish problem with a new robot, designed and built by a team of volunteers. But the broader goal of the organization is to take on other environmental problems using robotics at a large scale.

“Robots are in fact a new toolkit in the mission to preserve the environment,” Angle says.

The lionfish-hunting robot (see rendering above) is designed to approach the fish, zap it with electrical probes to stun it, and then pull it into a chamber using a suction device, Rizzi says. He adds that lionfish are good to eat—I’ll take his word for it—so the goal is to bring them back to shore intact. (Rizzi will share some more details at Xconomy’s Robo Madness event today at Google in Cambridge, MA.)

Rizzi tells me the basic design of the prototype: it’s about 28 inches long, a foot around, and weighs 40 pounds. For now, the robot is driven remotely by a person, but there are plans to make it more autonomous. It gets its power from a support vehicle, which charges up its batteries. The target price: $500 to $1,000 per robot.

There is a precedent for a robot like this. A team at the Queensland University of Technology previously developed an undersea robot that uses an injector arm and toxin to kill an invasive species of starfish that threatens the Great Barrier Reef.

RISE has gotten seed funding from the Anthropocene Institute, Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, and the Angle family. The nonprofit’s next step is a crowdfunding campaign that will kick off April 19, in tandem with a special event at the National Museum of Bermuda, where RISE will unveil its first robot.