Most people know iRobot as the company that created the Roomba, a revolutionary vacuuming robot that brings a touch of the Jetsons into today’s homes. But the Massachusetts-based tech company isn’t just the scourge of dust bunnies – iRobot’s engineers are also developing devices that dispose of bombs, radioactive debris, and other hazardous materials. Electrical engineer Gerald Roy Rondoe recently came to Suffolk to talk about iRobot’s involvement in the clean up the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Rondoe, who manages iRobot’s international sales and distribution, described the company’s versatile devices to an enthusiastic audience of Suffolk students, many of them engineering majors.

iRobot designs can be used on land and water and have many different applications. Their smallest robot, FirstLook, weighs in at 5lbs and is referred to as a “throwbot” because they can be thrown into scenarios which are deemed unsafe for humans to go firsthand. The robots are capable of performing various tasks such as bomb disposal, HazMat detection, mine detection, oceanography, and can also be first responders. Rondoe brought a “PackBot” model to demonstrate for students.

“It was exciting for our students to hear about the practical applications of engineering and robotics first-hand from an engineer on the cutting edge of this technology” explains engineering department chair Lisa Shatz.

After the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, iRobot sent two PackBots, two of their large Warrior robots, and robotic accessories to assist in the clean-up efforts while minimizing risk to human responders. The robots were able to withstand radiation levels of over 5,000 MSv (Milli Sieverts).

Rondoe himself was one of the six chosen to go to Japan within a few weeks of the disaster to teach workers at the Fukushima Daiichi site how to operate the robots.

“We were pleased to see how well the robots coped with the challenging environment,” says Rondo, noting that the PackBots used at Fukushima are still fully operational and continue to perform invaluable work in the clean-up.

Students were impressed by Rondoe’s extensive experience at companies from Silicon Valley to Asia. He stressed the importance of a strong technical background, telling students:

“Engineers can work in many different roles and a good technical background will always be valuable regardless of what path your career takes. I have had the opportunity to travel to 55 countries, meet many interesting people and have a very rewarding career. I could never have done this without my engineering degree.”

The event was co-sponsored by The Rosenberg Institute for East Asian Studies and the Suffolk Department of Engineering. Engineering student Hannah Pothier contributed to this story.