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 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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