The little robot that could
iRobot Corp. announced its acquisition of Root Robotics, Inc., whose educational Root coding robot got its start as a summer research project at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in 2011 and subsequently developed into a robust learning tool that is being used in over 500 schools to teach children between the ages of four and twelve how to code in an engaging, intuitive way. iRobot plans to incorporate the Root robot into its growing portfolio of educational robot products, and continue the work of scaling up production and expanding Root’s programming content that began when Root Robotics was founded by former Wyss Institute members in 2017.
“We’re honored that we got to see a Wyss Institute technology go from its earliest stages to where we are today, with the opportunity to make a gigantic impact on the world,” said Zivthan Dubrovsky, former Bioinspired Robotics Platform Lead at the Wyss Institute and co-founder of Root Robotics who is now the General Manager of Educational Robots at iRobot. “We’re excited to see how this new chapter in Root’s story can further amplify our mission of making STEM education accessible to students of any age in any classroom around the world.”
Root began in the lab of Wyss Core Faculty Member and Bioinspired Robotics Platform co-lead Radhika Nagpal, Ph.D., who was investigating the idea of robots that could climb metal structures using magnetic wheels. “Most whiteboards in classrooms are backed with metal, so I thought it would be wonderful if a robot could automatically erase the whiteboard as I was teaching – ironically, we referred to it as a ‘Roomba® for whiteboards,’ because many aspects were directly inspired by iRobot’s Roomba at the time,” said Nagpal, who is also the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Once we had a working prototype, the educational potential of this robot was immediately obvious. If it could be programmed to detect ink, navigate to it, and erase it, then it could be used to teach students about coding algorithms of increasing complexity.”
That prototype was largely built by Raphael Cherney, first as a Research Engineer in Nagpal’s group at Harvard in 2011, and then beginning in 2013 when he was hired to work on developing Root full-time along with Dubrovsky and other members of the Wyss Institute. “When Raphael and Radhika pitched me the idea of Root, I fell in love with it immediately,” said Dubrovsky. “My three daughters were all very young at the time and I wanted them to have exposure to STEM concepts like coding and engineering, but I was frustrated by the lack of educational systems that were designed for children their age. The idea of being able to create that for them was really what motivated me to throw all my weight behind the project.”
Under Cherney and Dubrovsky’s leadership, Root’s repertoire expanded to include drawing shapes on the whiteboard as it wheeled around, navigating through obstacles drawn on the whiteboard, playing music, and more. The team also developed Root’s coding interface, which has three levels of increasing complexity that are designed to help students from preschool to high school easily grasp the concepts of programming and use them to create their own projects. “The tangible nature of a robot really brings the code to life, because the robot is ‘real’ in a way that code isn’t – you can watch it physically carrying out the instructions that you’ve programmed into it,” said Cherney, who co-founded Root Robotics and is now a Principal Systems Engineer at iRobot. “It helps turn coding into a social activity, especially for kids, as they learn to work in teams and see coding as a fun and natural thing to do.”
Over the next three years the team iterated on Root’s prototype and began testing it in classrooms in and around Boston, getting feedback from students and teachers to get the robot closer to its production-ready form. “Robots are very hard to build, and the support we had from the Wyss Institute let us do it right, instead of just fast,” said Cherney. “We were able to develop Root from a prototype to a product that worked in schools and was doing what we envisioned, and the whole process was much smoother than it would have been if we had just been a team working in a garage.”