How IRobot Took the Plunge into Underwater Vehicles

Every company chairman likes to grow her business—and one common way to do that is by finding new revenue streams. It’s just that for most companies, that stream doesn’t turn out to be the ocean.

IRobot isn’t most companies. On Monday, the Bedford, MA-based maker of land-based military and consumer robotics dived deeper into the field of UUVs—unmanned underwater vehicles—by announcing its $10 million acquisition of North Carolina company Nekton Research, which makes a prototype UUV called the Ranger. It was iRobot’s second foray into underwater vehicles this year, coming on the heels of January’s announcement that the firm had signed an exclusive licensing deal with the University of Washington to develop and produce its Seaglider craft.

There are vast differences in these two UUVs. The Seaglider is propeller-less and motor-less, built to cruise around the ocean for months on end in various sensing and measurement roles. Nekton’s Ranger, by contrast, has a propeller and is meant for very short-range missions that include reconnaissance, port security, and mine clearing. But together they form two prongs of a carefully thought out growth strategy that goes way back—and that iRobot is only now beginning to reveal in any detail. I caught up with chairman Helen Greiner to get the low-down, if you will, including the story of how iRobot took the plunge into what she calls its “next frontier”: underwater vehicles.

“We first started thinking underwater probably around two years ago,” Greiner told me. The impetus was an examination of what areas of robotics could iRobot tap to expand its business. One of the hallmarks of robotics, Greiner says, is that it offers a wide variety of directions and opportunities—ground-based vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), industrial, consumer, military robots, and of course underwater vehicles (called UUVs or AUVs, for autonomous underwater vehicles—although in our conversation Greiner stuck to the term UUV). This diversity, she says, “is one of the wonderful things about the field. But we really looked at what is the next big opportunity to build the most on what iRobot does well.”

That desire to use existing expertise led them first to the military side of the house. IRobot’s military business, built around the Packbot, was going “gangbusters,” in Greiner’s words. The UAV market, though, was already pretty mature—and didn’t seem to offer a whole lot of ripe-for-the-plucking opportunity. “They got off to a start maybe 20 years ago,” Greiner says, which means that UAVs even pre-dated the ground vehicles iRobot creates. “It took them maybe 20 years to get to [a market size of] $500 million.”

University of Washington SeagliderUnderwater vehicles, though, were still in their relative infancy, offering a better chance to get in on the ground (maybe ocean is a better term here) floor. “And,” Greiner says, “we see the kind of applications that UUVs are useful [for] exactly along the lines of our military division’s strategy.” By that, Greiner is referring to iRobot’s tagline of building robots for “dull, dirty and dangerous missions…” For the Army, the PackBots do such work as reconnaissance of unknown or dangerous territory and hunting for improvised explosive devices. The Navy, of course, is looking for similar help in the sea.

IRobot strategists read all the publicly available studies of UUVs, including the master plans the Navy puts out about robotic systems of the future, which include ideas about undersea recon, mine clearing, hydrographic survey, exploration and mapping, infrastructure inspection, port security, and more. IRobot also engaged in a more private study of the field (Greiner didn’t go into much detail about that). And it studied developments in the underwater robotics market, including the announcement last December that Hydroid, the Pocasset, MA-based maker of robot subs, was to be acquired for some $80 million by Kongsberg Maritime of Norway. (The deal was completed this summer—and in April, before it was done, came word that the Naval Oceanographic Office, the wing of the Defense Department responsible for charting the ocean bottom, had signed a five-year support contract with Hydroid.)

IRobot could have developed its own underwater vehicles. But, Greiner says, “we believe it would reduce our in-house product development timeline probably by 18 to 24 months to do…acquisitions.” In addition to the time and money commitment involved in ramping up a new field totally in-house came the risk of losing the company’s … Next Page »

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