IRobot Sends One-Man Army to Detroit in Advance of Planned Invasion

Bruce Legge is on a mission to infiltrate the Detroit area’s defense industry and report back to his iRobot overlords in Bedford, MA. For a lone flesh-and-blood vanguard of a future invasion of metallic warriors, he’s not doing too badly.

Legge is a card-carrying member of the Michigan Homeland Security Consortium and is planning events for the Great Lakes chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). It’s all part of a “hearts-and-minds” strategy for iRobot  (NASDAQ:IRBT), which wants to become an integral part of the already established robotics landscape in Southeast Michigan.

But right now, Legge is still an army of one.

When I first spoke with Legge in July 2009, he had just established the Troy, MI, office of iRobot and was getting ready to ink some military contracts and start hiring employees. As of today, none of that has happened. Why? Well, when we talked again in late February, he started to tell me why, and then stopped himself.

I asked whether it was one of those situations where he’d have to shoot me if he told me.

No, nothing that “top secret,” the retired U.S. Navy submarine officer says. The company is simply waiting for some government funding to come through. Later, Legge indicated that the funding might come from the Recovery Act.

Meanwhile, there is still a great deal of ground-preparing for iRobot to do in the Detroit area. In a region where once-thriving industrial robotics companies are either changing or dying, iRobot practically stands alone as one that has experience in both the mass consumer and defense markets. That makes it one to watch, and perhaps emulate.

Robotics companies that once counted solely on the auto industry are learning, like many other auto suppliers, to diversify or die. iRobot comes to Detroit already diversified. We’ve all heard of the Roomba, the company’s robotic vacuum cleaner, which recently topped 5 million units sold. For the consumer product, Massachusetts is as fine a home as any. But for its “government robot,” Legge says, the Detroit area “is where the customer is.”

In 2007, when the University of Michigan launched its Ground Robotics Reliability Center, Legge “could really sense that the center of gravity was coming to this area for unmanned vehicles.” More recently the Robotic Systems Joint Progress Office (RSJPO) moved from Huntsville, AL, to the U.S. Army Tank-automotive & Armaments Command (TACOM) in Warren, MI, leaving little doubt that … Next Page »

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