iRobot Ava 500 Robot Upscales Virtual Presence

Topped with Cisco telepresence, iRobot's Ava 500 is built to be a virtual presence
Topped with Cisco telepresence, iRobot’s Ava 500 is built to be a virtual presence.

iRobot, Inc., which did its bit to replace humans when it comes to rug sweeping, floor mopping and the poking of suspicious lumps in Middle Eastern roads that could hide improvised explosives, has launched a robot to replace the presence of humans in the office, as well.

The iRobot Ava 500 is a virtual-presence device that learns its own way around the office so remote colleagues don’t have to drive it (and risk running over colleagues rather than communing with them). When it’s onsite, Ava maps out routes to defined endpoints, the location of stairs or other potential obstacles, and how to get back to the charging center that becomes its base station, according to the announcement from iRobot.

iRobot also handles most of the systems-monitoring, security and access controls through the iRobot Ava 500 Cloud Service, which creates a central resource-management system with profiles for authorized users, access controls, scheduling tools and access to interfaces to launch video- or audio connections that work like IP video calls using H.323 and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) connections to a remote user’s desktop or laptop, but come out on speakers and monitors carried by Ava to allow virtual in-person conversations.

Remote users can use the cloud to schedule time driving a particular Ava unit and designate a location in the remote facility where they’ll make the pickup. Ava is designed to navigate on its own to the pickup/meeting point to cut down virtual travel time, according to iRobot.

The controls do allow remote users to drive if they need to move to different locations, and include ways to pan up and down, side to side, and raise or lower the monitor to mimic sitting or standing, providing the ‘bot with the closest thing to eye contact a robot can manage.

Remote users control Ava using an iPad that displays a map or directory list of staffers in Ava’s location, which can be used to tell the robot where to go. At the top of iRobot’s chassis is a Cisco TelePresence EX60 high-definition monitor and camera combination that make up the business end of one of Cisco Systems, Inc.’s high-end networked Cisco TelePresence systems.

Unlike fixed-in-place videoconference facilities, Video Collaboration Robots are designed to give remote workers the chance to interact in places that are convenient for distant colleagues, according to Dave Evans, analyst at Wainhouse Research, LLC., who blogged about the partnership at the request of the vendors in June 2013, when iRobot and Cisco first announced the Ava collaboration.

There are 19 million robots in operation globally, a number that doubles every 18 months to 24 months, but few are “white collar” ‘bots, Evans wrote. The opportunity to have a robot replace humans in dangerous or difficult physical work is obvious, but there is untapped benefit in having them provide virtual presence for human minds as well as genuine replacement for human hands, he wrote, predicting robot telepresence would be an important part of the Internet of Things during the next decade. (A white paper available here goes into more detail on why.)

Unlike the Roomba or Scooba – or even the military remote-controlled IED-poking, scary-building-exploring PackBot – the Ava 500 is not designed for either consumers or small businesses.

Each Ava 500 lists for $69,500, or a monthly subscription cost of $2,500 per month, according to iRobot. That does not include the Cisco TelePresence system, the network reinforcements needed to support lots of high-quality video and audio, or extra insurance for the occasional wall Eva might bump or executive toe she might roll over.

Cisco will demonstrate Ava this week at the Enterprise Connect Conference March 17-19 in Orlando, or in the booth of Ava/Cisco TelePresence reseller Yorktel Corp.

Image: iRobot Corp./Cisco Systems, Inc.