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

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Southeast Michigan has become a key place to be for military robotics developers.

Legge worked for General Dynamics Land Systems in Sterling Heights, MI, for three years before coming to iRobot in 2009. “I sensed a shift in the buying of the military more toward the unmanned systems,” he says. And, now especially, the increased hazards to U.S. and allied troops from deadly roadside Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan have put unmanned robotic vehicles on the fast track, Legge says. iRobot has sold 3,000 of its autonomous Packbots to the government and many are already deployed in war zones.

Grace Bochenek, director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, MI, told me that the war in Afghanistan has changed the government’s business model.

“If you want to support the war fighters, our capability to insert new technology, the timeframe has to be a lot shorter than what we’ve done in the past,” Bochenek says. “Part of our strategy is partnering with the right people, whether they’re in academia, industry, other government agencies.”

And that is why iRobot chose Legge to lead the charge in Detroit. He does not have a background in robotics. But the career Navy man does know how to navigate the byzantine waters of government procurement, and how technology is actually used on the ground. “I just have a strong understanding of mission in the military and also how to best fill requirements,” Legge says.

The iRobot advance man indicated that perhaps this summer, when federal and Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) grants come through, he’ll get some company in his still-one-man Troy office. But he has plenty to do when it comes to making sure iRobot is well positioned within the local robotics industry.

In his capacity at AUVSI, Legge is helping put together a June 22-24 workshop at the Troy Marriott on “Autonomous Drive, Connected Vehicles and Robotics.” The goal is to bring together military, homeland security, and automotive developers and try to find ways to reduce costs of robotics.

“We absolutely see this as an opportunity to bring together defense, automotive, and homeland security professionals under one roof working toward a common goal,” Legge says.

As iRobot has done, one key could be to develop dual-use technology that can be used for civilian and military customers, Legge says. Time was, sophisticated technologies were developed for the military first before it trickled down to the consumer market. Now, through government partners like TARDEC in Warren, both markets are often pursued simultaneously.

iRobot is not in the automotive industry. But Legge hinted that anything is possible if the company develops new dual-use sensor and robotics technologies for the army. His company knows that “success is in the masses.” It’s a lesson that Detroit’s old industrial robotics companies likely need to learn if they, too, are to survive.

I’ll check back with iRobot this summer and see how things are going in Legge’s mission to help troops survive overseas.

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