Summer nights in alpine deserts are always cool. Some evenings, you can even see your breath fogging the jagged outline of Pikes Peak against the sky. Robert remembers sitting in the dark, feeling anxious. ROAMS was what they called a “lab queen,” a machine built for a controlled environment. There was no guarantee that it would hold up in the prairie outside the Air Force base, over 6,000 feet above sea level. The landscape lay dry and flat, nearly featureless but for low rabbitbrush and soapweed yucca. It was the kind of cold, open country that makes it particularly hard to surprise someone.
At the end of the exercise, the soldiers met with Greiner and Robert. They gave the women tips to make the robot into something the military might actually use in the field. Above all, they said, the next version had to be tough. “We’re going to throw it off the back of a C-130.”
ROAMS, apparently, had performed well enough. It could navigate a bumpy, open field. Because it ran cool—meaning it didn’t show up on thermal imaging—it managed to escape “enemy” detection. But the real distinguishing factor was its size. After millions of dollars in government-funded research, most military robots weighed thousands of pounds. ROAMS was under 30, and low enough to the ground to move without drawing attention.
Weeks later, a general was shown a video of ROAMS at work. “It’s about fucking time,” he said.
So began the end of iRobot’s financial woes. Months later, the company landed an almost $740,000 DARPA contract, and roughly $1.2 million more in 1998.
Greiner’s robots would go on to be more successful than anyone could have predicted. But the more they proved their worth to the military, the more the military adapted them to their own ends, until Greiner would have to face an unexpected question: What happens when the robots you built to save lives become weapons themselves?
With the expansion of autonomous weapons across the globe, the question has taken on a new urgency. Robots aren’t just being put on the offense. They’re learning to pull their own trigger.
With twin tracks like a crane, and a long, maneuverable head, the PackBot looks almost cute. The robot is the newest iteration of ROAMS: It’s a GPS-wielding, self-righting, stair climbing, portable machine that can survive a 10-foot drop onto a concrete floor. Greiner became fascinated with robots when, at age 12, she watched Star Wars: A New Hope. To her, Leia and Luke were supporting characters. Her most famous creations—the PackBot for the military, the Roomba for households—have the charm of R2D2.
Greiner started iRobot in 1990, along with Brooks, her professor, and Colin Angle, another grad student. She and her teammates spent their days, and often nights, in a lab space in Somerville, Massachusetts. In a previous life, the building operated as a slaughterhouse. The transition from abattoir to a lab that built life-saving robots seemed fitting. At that time, Boston was in its own transition from a depressed city to a world-renowned center of science and technology.