Gamechangers: Helen Greiner on Chronicle


Helen Greiner with WCVB-Channel 5’s Mike Wankum

Mike Wankum

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Helen Greiner was born in London, raised in Long Island but found her home in New England, where she went to M.I.T. in the late 1980s.

HG: I learned a lot of great stuff at M.I.T. but they did not really know how to build robots at the time.

Something she wanted to do. An interest that started long before grad school.

HG: I saw Star Wars when I was 11 in 1977 and that got me hooked. R2-D2 is my muse.  Cause he had an agenda, he had a character, a personality.  He was more than just a machine and always wanted to build machines that are more than machines.

Along with college friends, Colin Angle and Rodney Brooks, she co-founded iRobot Corporation in 1990. Eventually becoming CEO.  They built the incredibly popular Roomba vacuum cleaner, selling more than 10 million of the little robots that clean floors.  To Helen, it was about more than tidying up your house. It showed people that robots could be part of their daily lives and not that scary stuff of science fiction.

HG: that was a dream come true for me because we got robots into the hands of millions and millions of people.

IRobot went on to create other ‘bots; going into dangerous places to help soldiers on the battlefield.

HG: At the same time [as building vacuums and putting robots in the home] at iRobot we were also working with the military and police forces and we provided robots that have been credited with saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of civilians. That is the thing I am most proud of in my career.

In 2008, she broke away from iRobot and started a new company, CyPhy Works, a very high-tech drone system.

HG: There are lots of drones in the world but we have come up with technologies that make them fly longer, be more secure, be resistant to jamming, and operate in the kind of weather that people experience all over the country and all over the world.

Mike Wankum: This is not a toy.  Typical drones, you might find in a hobby shop, can only stay in the air about 15 minutes. That is as long as their battery lasts. But what CyPhy has done is figure out a way to keep a drone in the air 24/7, in all kinds of conditions.

HG: This drone actually flies for days at a time and it does it with a special source called a microfilament tether.

The drone is named PARC, which stands for Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications system.

HG:  People have only seen the tip of the iceberg. From Army to Special Forces to Navy to Air Force and it’s all because of this microfilament tether. Not just supplies power but it does communications so you do not have to worry about being jammed or spoofed or intercepted.

The possibilities with PARC are almost limitless.  It can carry four pounds and use high-resolution cameras. The drone can lock onto me from 400 feet up and track my movement.  Even switching to infrared sensors when I walk under a tree. Radiation sensors can easily be added.  Even a cell phone receiver, which is important in re-establishing communications after a hurricane or natural disaster.

This is the guts of our PARC system.  This is what’s inside?  That’s what’s inside.   When you bring up a new component you can put it into the system and test that is working using the real hardware from a PARC system.

Fifty people work in the Danvers facility constantly tweaking and modifying this “tower without a tower”. There are other projects underway but we can’t show them to you just yet. She is quick to point out it is a team effort:  The real trick to being a good CEO is to hire really, really, good people.

Helen has been honored as top entrepreneur/leader in the technology world by everything to from Good Housekeeping and Fortune magazine to her alma mater, M.I.T.  President Obama named her a presidential ambassador for a global leadership.

HG: I like to be on the cutting-edge of technology. I like to be a pioneer in a field.  I like to build the kinds of things that people haven’t seen before.

To many, she’s one of the reasons Boston has become a global player in robotics.  A big company fostering the growth of other startups.

HG: We really lead the world in robot products in this area and then we have what I call the baby ‘bots.  And the baby bots are companies that have spun out of those companies that people have had experience working at those companies and say, “Hey, I have this great new idea and we’re going to build another company.”  And they do it in the local area because of the brainpower, because of the supply chain and because I think it’s a wonderful area to live and work.

Shayna Seymour: Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) flew two of CyPhy’s drones above the Boston Marathon start line.

Watch Helen’s original profile on Chronicle: Helen Greiner Re-Imagines Robots

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