IRobot Strikes “Transformational” Deal to Enable Next Generation Laser-Guided Bots

In an era of irregular warfare, where troops must contend with roadside bombs and HAZMAT teams might confront bioweapons, one long-standing vision is for warfighters and first responders to be able to deploy autonomous robots to handle terrain-clearing and reconnaissance chores while the humans wait out of harm’s way. For several years now, iRobot’s Packbot robots have gone into battle to try to find improvised explosive devices and hunt for enemy troops. But these and other bots have some shortcomings that significantly limit their effectiveness. As company co-founder and chairman Helen Greiner told me in a phone call this afternoon: “Today, robots are somewhat blind. They feel their way around, or a person’s controlling them. And we believe the more the robots can do on their own, the more applications will open up for them.”

Greiner thinks iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) is on the verge of creating a new generation of robots with a much higher degree of autonomy than is currently possible. To that end, this afternoon, the Burlington, MA, robotics maker is announcing a deal with Santa Barbara, CA-based Advanced Scientific Concepts under which it has obtained the exclusive rights (in exchange for future purchasing commitments) to ASC’s 3-D Flash LADAR (for Laser Detection and Ranging) technology. IRobot, which is also taking an undisclosed minority ownership stake in ASC, believes the technology will provide new navigation and mapping capabilities for future generations of robots and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and pave the way for autonomous vehicles to lead convoys into dangerous territory, search contaminated buildings for casualties, or enable bomb squads to safely investigate suspicious objects. In sum, Greiner says, it’s a potentially game-changing partnership. “We get our robot mad scientists together with the laser mad scientists…I believe its going to be transformational for the robot field,” she says.

If there was any doubt before today’s announcements, 2008 is shaping up to be an all-out year for Greiner’s firm. Just in front of Christmas, the defense and consumer robotics firm won its dramatic legal battles (covered extensively by Xconomy) against Robotic FX. Even before the courtroom cases were settled, the Army had revoked Robotic FX’s contract to deploy up to 3,000 robots in the Middle East and awarded a $286 million deal to iRobot. Then, last Thursday, the company announced that the Army had accelerated the schedule for deployment of what Wade referred to as the Packbot’s little brother, the SUGV (for Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle), a 30-pound, ruggedized, semi-autonomous, camera-wielding, robot more for ground troops. That was part of a separate, $51 million contract awarded under the Army’s Future Combat Systems program that could now see the SUGVs deployed as early as 2010.

But, given today’s announcement, it seems all that was just a table-setter, at least on the military-robot side of the business (iRobot’s consumer products include the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and other household robots). Laser range detectors have been employed in the robotics community for years, Greiner points out. “In fact, we’ve done it for many, many years,” she says. The problem is, the systems are not especially rugged or durable, they’re susceptible to glare from the sun, and have trouble cutting through dust or fog. In short, they don’t do as well as they should in the extreme conditions in which they must typically be deployed.

What ASC brings to the table is a new approach to the problem. As Greiner puts it, “These guys have invented a new type of LADAR system.” The Flash-based, solid-state system has no moving parts, one factor in improving its ruggedness. Instead of scanning the terrain one line at a time like traditional LADAR, ASC’s system illuminates an entire scene at once with diffuse laser light, providing a full, instantaneous 3D picture of the territory around it. The flash technology, Greiner says, can “visually freeze the entire geometry.”

This afternoon, iRobot plans to demonstrate a working prototype of the system. “They’re not on robots yet,” Greiner notes. But she says the technology is proven and that the company plans to demonstrate the system for the military later this year, with delivery of the first robots incorporating the technology targeted for 2009. She says she could see the new LADARs going not only on Packbots but larger vehicles like Humvees or even tanks. Outside the military, she envisions it enabling robot-driven tractors or other large industrial robots.

“I believe it’s an enabling technology,” she says.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at Follow @bbuderi

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