Joe Jones says he first envisioned a vacuum-cleaning robot in January 1989.
It was "Robot Olympics" month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Lab, where Jones worked. Staffers were given a set of parts and challenged to make a robot with them.
"I lived alone in an apartment in Cambridge then, and I was kind of a slob," he said. "And I thought, I'll build a robot that will clean the floor of my apartment."
That initial prototype "kind of worked," Jones said. But the concept followed him over the years, and eventually became a reality in September 2002, when iRobot — Jones' employer at the time — introduced the Roomba. Millions have since been sold, and the device has even broken into pop culture.
Now the 64-year-old Jones, a native of southwest Missouri, has a new focus. He's developing the Tertill, billed as the "first weeding robot available to home gardeners."
Designed to run on solar power, the goal is for the robot "to just live in the garden and do everything it's supposed to do by itself," Jones said. A campaign to raise funds to produce it will launch next week on the website Kickstarter.
Jones was born at a hospital in Springfield in 1953 and grew up about 25 miles to the north, in Morrisville, a town of a couple hundred.
"From my earliest memories, there was never a time when I was not intensely interested in science and technology," Jones said. "Whenever my mother went to Bolivar I’d ask her to pick up books at the library with science experiments in them that I could do."
Jones said he became interested in model rockets during high school and used a $40 reflector telescope to look at the sky "practically every night, weather permitting."
Jones graduated from Morrisville's Marion C. Early High School in 1971 and left to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said he's lived in the Boston area pretty much ever since.
It took more than a decade from Jones' Robot Olympics bid until the Roomba became a reality.
In the early 1990s, Jones got a job at a company called Denning Mobile Robotics and showed a working prototype to leadership there — only to be laid off two weeks later.
Jones then landed at what is now iRobot, which in addition to the Roomba produces mopping and pool cleaning robots. But work on the vacuum cleaner happened in fits and starts throughout the 1990s until iRobot — which had been trying to partner with other companies — agreed to fund development of the Roomba itself.
When the product finally hit the market in 2002, however, it was a clear hit.
"It was amazing," Jones said. "We didn't dare to hope for the kind of success that we had."
People other than Jones, like iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, are sometimes touted as the inventor of the Roomba. Jones said he considers himself the inventor, but added that iRobot colleague Paul Sandin played a critical role in making the product a reality.
Jones said he created the Roomba as an employee, so he doesn't get any ongoing royalties in conjunction with sales.
The Roomba's public profile exceeds that of the typical vacuum cleaner. "DJ Roomba" was a recurring inanimate character on the television show "Parks and Recreation." A YouTube video of a cat in a shark costume riding a Roomba has been viewed more than 12 million times. And Saturday Night Live parodied the product in 2004.
Jones said he thinks the Roomba's profile is a result of the fact that "people find it engaging," and said iRobot research found that many people actually give their Roomba a name.
"They kind of treat it like a family member," Jones said.
Jones said he left iRobot about four years after the Roomba was introduced, when he felt he had less freedom at the company. He co-founded a company called Harvest Automation, which built robots that move potted plants around nurseries. Then, he said, he became one of numerous people in the robotics space trying to create robots that would weed entire fields for farmers — an elusive solution Jones said would help the world produce more food without requiring more resources.
Jones said he was then approached about shifting his focus to home gardens. He's now chief technology officer at Massachusetts-based Franklin Robotics, the company developing the Tertill.
The name Tertill, pronounced like the animal, is a bit of an homage to robotics history. William Grey Walter, an early robotics pioneer, referred to some of his robots as tortoises because that's what they resembled.
The Tertill uses a string trimmer to chop weeds and has wheels designed to damage weeds that are about to sprout. Franklin Robotics says it would be difficult to keep a robot that pulled weeds from the roots affordable.
The Tertill distinguishes weeds from plants by height. As such, gardeners are asked to put collars around seedlings, so the robot avoids them. That's the key difference between a weeding robot for home and farm use, Jones said — a farmer can't be expected to put a collar around every plant across numerous acres.
For the Tertill to work well, gardeners also need to ensure there is enough space between plants for the robot to move and that there's a border around the space that needs to be weeded, so that the Tertill doesn't leave the area, Jones said.
Jones said the Tertill is designed to stay outside for an entire growing season, automatically alternating between charging motionless in the sun and roaming the garden looking for weeds.
Franklin Robotics' Kickstarter campaign is scheduled to go online around June 13. Jones said the company is looking to raise "around or over $100,000," but the exact amount hasn't been finalized.
Provided the campaign is successful, the goal will be to have the first Tertills delivered for the 2018 growing season, Jones said.
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