ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
New iRobot Spinoff Eyes Big Pentagon Contracts
Now officially in business as an independent company, iRobot’s former defense unit is gearing up to compete for Pentagon contracts in a market that has changed dramatically since the PackBot bomb-clearing robot became a military staple in Afghanistan and Iraq more than a decade ago.
“There are a lot of opportunities,” said Sean Bielat, a former iRobot executive and now CEO of Endeavor Robotics, based in Bedford, Massachusetts. The company was acquired earlier this year by the private equity firm Arlington Capital Partners in a $45 million deal.
iRobot divested its defense arm to focus exclusively on the consumer market. The decision to spin off the defense unit is “good for both companies,” Bielat said in an interview, as executives concluded that the vastly different defense and commercial businesses could no longer coexist.
Endeavor has about 100 employees and is preparing to bid on at least three large robot procurements over the next two years, including autonomous and remotely controlled devices used for battlefield reconnaissance, mine clearing and other duties considered too dangerous for humans.
The Army has a huge inventory of robots — estimated at about 7,000 — that it purchased under fast-track procurement authorities with contingency war funds — but now have become a significant logistics burden. The plan is to streamline a hodgepodge of systems into “programs of record” with dedicated logistics support funding. The Army also is seeking more advanced features in its future robots and “open architectures” that allow for easier upgrades and digital linkages between humans and machines.
“We’re very excited about programs of record in the ground robots space over the next two years,” Bielat said. “We expect to see requests for proposals within the next year. We think we’re well positioned to win at least one if not all of them.” Bielat, like other contractor executives, are keen on programs of record that have more predictable funding streams and stable budgets for maintenance and upgrades. A lot of war equipment did not become a program of record and ended up either discarded or stored in disrepair.
An upcoming procurement that Endeavor is targeting is the CRSI, or common robotic system individual. The Army is seeking a 25-pound or lighter system for use at the squad level for chemical, biological and nuclear radiation detection.
Bielat said this is major prize for the industry as the Army could buy up to 4,100 systems. The company is developing new technologies for the CRSI bid to meet Army requirements for interoperability and open architecture.
Another upcoming competition is for the Army’s MTRS increment 2, or man transportable robotic system. This is a larger remotely operated robot that will have bomb-detection functions similar to the Packbot’s.
Endeavor also will bid for the Naval Sea Systems Command’s advanced explosive ordnance disposal robotic system, or AEODRS, a family of systems that would be deployed with dismounted troops, in tactical operations and at fixed bases. Beilat said the program is attractive because it is intended to be used by multiple military services.
“The IED fight will be with us for a long time,” he said using an acronym for the roadside bombs that have killed and injured thousands of U.S. troops. “This will continue as long as we’re fighting asymmetric fights.” Robots are going to be essential in any battlefield, he added, because there they keep humans out of harm’s way.
The Army has bigger plans to deploy robotic trucks as logistics supply mules and in other roles, but progress has been slow. It’s like any new technology, Bielat said. The tactics and doctrine take a long time to catch up to the technology. It took the Army many years to codify the use of tanks in armored warfare. “I think you’ll see the same thing in robotics.” Also, the technology moves much faster than the defense acquisition process is able to procure, he said. “We need some fundamental reform in order to get technology out to the troops faster.”
Bielat said the company’s game plan includes winning Army contracts but also acquiring competitors. “There are a lot of emerging companies, a lot of opportunity,” he said. The best candidates would be companies that are focused on the government market. “We are looking at potential acquisitions of companies that make sense for us to help us in our growth trajectory.”