Why Texas Instruments and iRobot are working together

The chips that power today’s smartphones and tablets are expanding to robots as Texas Instruments and iRobot announced a new partnership on Monday. TI’s (s txn) OMAP platform will be used by iRobot(s irbt) — maker of the Roomba and Scooba service robots — to help develop new robotic technologies.
The partnership is a fitting match. Between its home and government service robots, iRobot has sold more than 7.5 million units, helping to move the robotics market forward. Clearly, it’s a leader in this space. And Texas Instruments is no slouch in the chip department. The company’s OMAP platform powers a number of currently popular mobile devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Motorola’s Droid Razr(s mmi) and the Amazon(s amzn) Kindle Fire.
So why does iRobot need a mobile platform like the OMAP from TI? It’s all about the sensors and chip capabilities. Here’s what TI says, via email, that the OMAP platform will bring to the table:

  • Targeted accelerators for multimedia, graphics, imaging and display
  • High-performance, dual-external memory interfaces with short path (POP memory)
  • Wide bus architecture (direct memory access for processors, accelerators, peripherals)
  • Hardware and software support for the most advanced power management techniques
  • Multiple power and voltage domains for advanced partitioning
  • Unmatched imaging features, built from TI’s years of experience in digital still-camera deployments: fastest camera interface on the market, and dedicated software libraries

But this shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve been following the mobile device market. I called this trend of smartphone guts powering robots in a detailed report back in August of 2010 (subscription required), saying:

Back in 2004, we added an R2D2 Interactive Astromech droid to our family and the li’l fella has provided hours of fun: He dances, plays hide-and-seek and of course plays back memorable sound bites from the Star Wars franchise movies.
So robots in the home aren’t necessarily a new concept, but the ones I envision in a not-too-distant future will leverage various technologies of the smartphone, thanks to advances in chips, various sound and sight sensors, wireless broadband and software.

I also pointed out several examples of leveraging smartphone technology to make smarter robots: Faster chips for better “brains”; integrated connectivity for advanced services and a way to tap vast information stores; and sensor support adding “senses” such as eyesight, hearing and touch to the next generation of robots.

While I don’t know specifically what new products will come from the iRobot and TI partnership, it’s a safe bet that the robots of tomorrow will be smarter, more autonomous and far more interactive than the carpet cleaner devices of today. And you can thank the maturing smartphone, and the chips that power it, for that.