Latest Signals from iRobot: One If By Land, Two If By Pool

Burlington, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) has made two announcements in as many days, touching on both sides of its business, military robots and home robots.

On the military side, iRobot said Monday that it has received an award to design and develop robots for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s LANdroids program. LANdroids (the LAN stands for local area networking) are DARPA’s answer to the problem of radio-signal blockage and interference in complex urban warfighting areas, an issue that tends to degrade communications between soldiers whenever they aren’t within each other’s direct line of sight.

The agency wants iRobot and other robot makers to develop fleets of small robots that would basically function as mobile, autonomous repeater antennas. The book-sized or palm-sized bots would be dropped or thrown into an urban environment, where they’d fan out, navigating based on signal strength measurements to the optimal positions for maintaining a wireless mesh network. The network would then relay communications between soldiers, or between field units and headquarters. The robots would even form themselves into virtual chains or “tethers,” automatically maintaining communications with units that wander away from the main mesh.

DARPA LANdroid Concept DesignPicture a desktop Wi-Fi base station with a few antennas sticking out and couple of tank treads attached, and you’ll have DARPA’s basic vision for a LANdroid. According to briefing documents, distributed last June by DARPA’s Information Processing Technology Office for bidders on the project, the robots will need to be not just agile but intelligent. They’ll need the ability to navigate within a signal-strength map to the location with the best signal; respond to the movements of other LANdroids; “heal” the mesh when other bots are lost or broken; and calculate the trade-off between the energy required to pick up a signal and the energy required to move to a location with a better signal. They’ll also need to be energy-efficient (since there might not be anyone around to recharge or replace their batteries) and inexpensive—under $100 per unit, according to DARPA.

IRobot did not specify the amount of the award it has received from DARPA, but the agency’s briefing documents state that the program’s target award size is $1 million or less per year per effort, spread over three project phases lasting one year each. In a press release, iRobot co-founder and chairman Helen Greiner said, “Research and development awards such as the DARPA LANdroids program enable us to continue driving innovation towards the next generation of revolutionary mobile, tactical combat robots that deliver advanced situational awareness and help keep warfighters out of harm’s way.”

Another array of iRobot products, just expanded today, is intended to keep swimmers out of muck’s way. Last April, iRobot introduced its Verro 300 and Verro 600 pool-cleaning robots, which were developed by Aquajet and Aquatron and brought to market under the iRobot brand name. The robots, which are tethered to an electrical transformer, are designed to be dropped into a swimming pool, where they are propelled by hydrojets, vacuuming up debris into a filtration bag and power-washing an entire pool surface in 60 to 90 minutes.

IRobot’s Verro 500 Pool Cleaning RobotToday, iRobot surfaced two additions to the Verro line, the Verro 100 and the Verro 500. The Verro 100, expected to go on sale in April, is a simplified, economy model designed for above-ground pools, while the Verro 500, available now, features rubber rollers and brushes for more thorough surface scrubbing.

“A desire to build on iRobot’s heritage of practical and easy-to-use indoor/outdoor home helper robots was the impetus for expanding the popular Verro line,” Sandra Lawrence, president and general manager of iRobot’s home robots division, said in the company’s announcement about the new products. “As the swimming pool season kicks off in much of the country, we wanted to provide the best solutions for pool maintenance that enable pool owners to spend their leisure time enjoying their pool, rather than cleaning it.”

The company has apparently dropped the Verro 600 model. IRobot is pricing the Verro 100, Verro 300, and Verro 500 at $399, $699, and $999, respectively.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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