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 existing focus. Even with the decision made to go the acquisition route, she says, “We looked around for a year before we started thinking about Nekton, which happened early this year.”

But some time after they began talking to Nekton, executives of the North Carolina firm mentioned Seaglider at the University of Washington as an interesting vehicle iRobot should check out. IRobot execs loved the idea, Greiner says, and effectively put the Nekton deal temporarily on hold while they pursued the new opportunity.

Seaglider was developed by researchers at the university’s Applied Physics Lab and School of Oceanography. The torpedo-shaped craft, equipped with sensors to record temperature, salinity, oxygen levels, depth, and the like, is just under six feet long. It has no motor or external moving parts, but is able to “glide” up and down through the water by changing its buoyancy and riding currents. As Greg has previously described it, “It can travel distances of several thousand kilometers—going out to sea for six or seven months at a time—diving to depths of up to 1 kilometer and surfacing periodically to get a GPS fix or transmit data.”

In June, iRobot announced it had signed an exclusive licensing deal with UW to develop and commercialize the Seaglider. The move put iRobot into direct competition with both Hydroid and Cambridge, MA-based Bluefin Robotics. Only we didn’t really know how serious iRobot was about the field. At the time, Greiner says, it was a bit hard to make waves about Seaglider “without talking about our entire underwater strategy.” And she didn’t want to do that until they could go back and complete the Nekton deal.

Which is where we are now. The iRobot chairman says that together, the Seaglider deal and the Nekton acquisition give iRobot a great start on two “sub” markets of UUVs—gliders and propeller-driven craft. In contrast to the 1.8-meter-long Seaglider, Nekton’s Ranger (now renamed the iRobot Ranger) is only about a meter long, and just five inches in diameter. If the Seaglider is torpedo-like, the Ranger is a minitorpedo—but still able to carry a variety of equipment, from depth, temperature, or conductivity sensors to side-scan sonar and a radio system, with all the supporting peripherals and software—which can be swapped out for different missions. What’s more, a person can carry it and throw it into the water by himself if necessary. “Basically,” Greiner says, “we believe we’ll make it the Packbot of the underwater domain.”

Greiner says the fit between the two companies is also a big plus. Nekton has extensive underwater know-how and design expertise, has worked with the government, and has delivered about 20 Ranger prototypes to various research labs under contract. Combined with iRobot’s production ability, training, sales and marketing, service, support, and contracts management expertise—“all the things we developed to support robot production,” she says—the acquisition “will allow us to become a significant producer of UUVs.”

IRobot plans to keep all 20 or so of Nekton’s staff in their current location in Raleigh-Durham. It also named Nekton CEO Rick Vosburgh as head of a newly created Maritime Programs office, which will now produce all iRobot’s UUVs, starting with the Seaglider and Ranger. The office will report to Joe Dyer, a retired vice admiral who heads iRobot’s Government and Industrial Robots Division. Greiner says to think of UUVs as “basically a whole new military market to attack.”

Both the Seaglider and Ranger are expected to be in production some time next year. Greiner wouldn’t be too specific about the timetables. But my sense is Seaglider is farther along. I saw one firsthand at the grand opening of iRobot’s new headquarters this summer and spoke with program manager Tom Frost, who told me the company intended to get Seaglider to market “right quick.” As for Nekton’s craft, Greiner says that by the “end of next year we’ll have the Ranger product line in production.”

How fast will this make a difference to iRobot’s bottom line? The company said in its announcement of the Nekton acquisition that it anticipated the product and contract revenue from the deal would amount to $6-8 million next year. Greiner told me that she thinks of UUVs as basically where the UGV market that iRobot currently serves was in 2001 or 2002, with prototypes just getting deployed and the military just starting to use them. And that makes her extremely optimistic about the future. “You can expect big, big things from the underwater market,” she says.

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

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