Small Robotics Business Takes on Defense Procurement Establishment
A small business has accused the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization of breaking several Federal Acquisition Regulations during an ongoing program to field ultra-light robots in Afghanistan.
Executives at MacroUSA Corp., a McClellan-Calif.-based robot manufacturer, say JIEDDO favored two larger makers, iRobot and QinetiQ North America.
Robert Ramos, the company’s president and its government contracting officer, Joe O’Gallagher, are both retired Air Force contracting officers. “We have been on the other side in terms of getting who you want, or must get, and trying to justify it,” he told National Defense.
JIEDDO spokeswoman Army Col. Stephanie Holcombe, in a written response, said that the organization has not violated the FAR.
“JIEDDO consistently made every effort to include and not exclude MacroUSA from this process. All actions were taken in full compliance with the FAR,” she wrote.
JIEDDO began the search for a small, backpackable robotic system in 2011 after receiving a joint urgent needs statement from combatant commanders in Afghanistan. The smallest systems were too heavy at approximately 32 pounds. The JUON indicated that they wanted a system of no more than 15 pounds with chassis, controller and any accessories. They also wanted something rugged enough to be thrown at least 10 feet. (See story in the October issue of National Defense)
After conducting market research, JIEDDO settled on robots from MacroUSA, iRobot and QinetiQ North America.
Ramos said he saw signs of favoritism before the robots were sent to Afghanistan for field testing. All the robots had to pass National Institute of Standards specifications to take part, which MacroUSA did by the specified deadline. Neither iRobot, nor QinetiQ entrants were ready, and JIEDDO extended the date that the robots could be delivered by three months, Ramos said.
“We are a small company. We were just happy to be selected. So we figured who are we to complain?” Ramos said. “If we were to do that, we probably would have gotten kicked out of the program.”
MacroUSA’s robot was the only one to have a NIST-certified manipulator arm although there was no such requirement in the JUONS, he said.
Task Force Paladin, a unit devoted to defeating improvised explosive devices, evaluated about 300 of the three models of robots in Afghanistan, and wrapped up the tests by August 2012. Its initial report was rejected by the Army Test and Evaluation Command, then rewritten and resubmitted by Nov. 28.
The feedback MacroUSA was receiving from downrange was that everybody loved its arm. For explosive ordnance disposal teams, an arm was necessary, in Ramos’ opinion.
MacroUSA then learned that JIEDDO was conducting market research with iRobot and QinetiQ with the intention of ordering robotic arms. Ramos requested meetings with JIEDDO officials, but he was “pushed off,” he said. The organization finally agreed to a Dec. 17 meeting.
Unbeknownst to MacroUSA, JIEDDO had filed a limited source justification and approval justification form on Nov. 30 to acquire robotic arms from QinetiQ, according to the document, which was given to National Defense
On Dec. 14, JIEDDO announced that it was spending $12.4 million to acquire 100 light-weight modular arms for the Dragon Runner 10s already fielded with Task Force Paladin, with an option to purchase an additional 520 units.
MacroUSA, catching wind of the award before it was announced publicly, filed a protest Dec. 13 with the Government Accountability Office and requested a stay on the grounds that this was “technical leveling,” Ramos said. In effect, he said JIEDDO liked the idea of a robotic arm as an accessory, and was allowing one vendor the opportunity to add it. QinetiQ, according to the contract, would have been given four months to add the feature to its Dragon Runner 10. Additionally, JIEDDO had awarded the contract without giving the public a 48-hour advanced notice of the proposed purchase, the company alleged in its protest to the GAO.
“The government is punishing you because the other company wasn’t smart enough to have any forward thinking about capability,” Ramos said.
“Macro is still the only company that went through the evaluation process with a NIST-tested arm on their system and should have been the only company from which the government was authorized to purchase a robot with manipulator arm on a sole source basis,” the Dec. 13 request for stay filed with GAO stated.
The Nov. 30 limited source justification and approval document JIEDDO was using to purchase the arms has five redacted signatures approving the contract, except from the Legal Certification department, which was blank.
JIEDDO decided to “voluntarily take corrective action” by rescinding the award, according to a Dec. 18 document signed by Sandra Haber, JIEDDO’s deputy general council for acquisition.
GAO then denied the protest, stating that it was no longer relevant in light of the award being rescinded. “The agency’s proposed corrective action renders MacroUSA’s protest academic,” GAO General Counsel Susan A. Poling wrote in a Dec. 19 decision.
“You can’t just say it is an urgent need and modify the JUONS so you can add an arm, so you can award to one company,” he said. That is why it was rescinded, he asserted.
Holcombe, when asked if “corrective” action was being taken, what then was incorrect, initially said the rescinding of the arm contract was not related to MacroUSA’s Dec. 13 GAO protest.
“The Dec. 18, 2012, GAO Procurement Law Group Bid Protest letter … represents a reevaluation of the acquisition strategy with respect to the requirement for a robot with an arm because of changing requirements transmitted from the theater of operations,” she wrote. JIEDDO had concluded that there would not be a one-size-fits-all ultra-light robot. Two of the user communities would not require an arm, and one would, she wrote.
In a follow-up question as to why JIEDDO would rescind an award for an arm based on the fact that field reports stated that an arm was needed, Holcombe said that MacroUSA’s protest did, in fact, have an influence.
“While evaluating the protestor's comments in the bid protest, JIEDDO reevaluated the acquisition approach and concluded the solicitation tried to bundle too many different requirements into a single solicitation,” she wrote.
As for the blank spot where the signature should have been in the limited source justification document, she said that had been approved electronically.
“The justification and approval for the ultralight robotic system program was properly certified by JIEDDO general counsel via electronic means and is compliant under the Federal Acquisition Regulation,” Halcombe wrote.
Meanwhile, MacroUSA executives’ meeting with JIEDDO officials did not go well, Ramos said. Officials would only share one PowerPoint slide about the company’s Armadillo robot, and would only say that it had clearance problems and did not go fast enough. The officials declined to share the Task Force Paladin report, and to date, never have revealed it to MacroUSA.
JIEDDO officials also mentioned that it lost radio contact once. But they would not share any details as to the circumstances. There was nothing quantitative in the presentation, Ramos said.
Both the clearance and the speed issues could easily be fixed, Ramos said. Speed is regulated by the software, for example. Both adjustments could have been done for free to taxpayers with minimal effort, he said. The JUONS statement required at least 3 mph. MacroUSA’s literature says the robot can go as fast as 3.1 mph.
MacroUSA was assured at the time that they were still in the competition, and that new requirements would be issued based on the Task Force Paladin report, and that there would be multiple awards. That was the last the company heard until it discovered that the U.S. Army Contracting Command awarded iRobot a $14.4 million contract to acquire its First Look ultralight robot and QinetiQ at $12.9 million contract for its Dragon Runner 10. Both have until August to complete the contract. The number of robots were not specified.
The award came on Feb. 28, according to the command’s website. Ramos said he didn’t find out until March 8.
The company was also surprised to discover that the program had apparently been handed over to Joint Program Office-Robotic Systems in Warren, Mich.
“JIEDDO couldn’t order what they wanted to order, so they passed some of the program to RS-JPO,” Ramos said. “They couldn’t award to who they wanted to, so they went a looked at another avenue.”
MacroUSA has hired Washington, D.C.-based attorneys and filed a second protest to see how JPO-Robotic Systems could have awarded this as an urgent need and sole source without market research to see if any other robots — such as theirs — would be a better value to taxpayers.
“If you go through all the GAO reports, [JIEDDO] has no accountability for the money they spend,” he said.
On March 11, JIEDDO announced a request for proposals based on an urgent needs statement with a two-week deadline to acquire another “ultralight robot” system that could weigh up to 26 pounds.
JIEDDO was asked why it was seeking to purchase a robot that was only about 6 pounds lighter than the smallest system currently being fielded if combatant commanders were previously asking for the system’s weight to total 15 pounds.
It goes back to JIEDDO concluding that there were three different user groups for an ultralight robot and there was no one size fits all system, Holcombe said.
“The robots sought under these solicitations represent a significantly improved technical capability than those currently used in theater. Two of the groups neither requested nor required an arm; the third did. Also, the mode of use and transport dictated weight was less important for some groups than for others,” Holcombe wrote.
There will now be three separate procurements. MacroUSA’s second protest prevented Holcombe from commenting on the Feb. 28 award. She noted that there is a competitive solicitation open for a robot with a manipulator arm. She was not certain when that would be awarded.
Ashley Givens, director of public affairs for Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems, declined to comment on JPO-Robotic Systems’ involvement in the program, and referred questions back to JIEDDO.
Photo Credit: MarcoUSA Corp.