Ultralight Robot Program Allegedly Runs Afoul of Acquisition Regulations

By Stew Magnuson
The Government Accountability Office has found in favor of a small, Veteran-owned business that has repeatedly protested the acquisition of small reconnaissance robots intended to be rapidly fielded to troops in Afghanistan.
MacroUSA, one of three original contenders in the ultralight reconnaissance system program — along with QinetiQ North America and iRobot — has prevailed in protests for three separate solicitations, alleging that the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, the Robotic Systems Joint Program Office and the Army Contracting Command — have failed to follow acquisition regulations, and have favored the two larger robot manufacturers.
The protests and the cancelation of three solicitations have ultimately delayed the fielding of the robots, which combatant commanders had identified as an urgent need.
The office of the (contracting) command council in a June 7 letter stated that it would be canceling two sole source contracts issued for iRobot and QinetiQ light robots earlier this year because GAO had indicated that MacroUSA’s protest would likely prevail.
This was determined in a process called an alternative dispute resolution, which is defined as an accelerated protest resolution procedure at GAO that is intended to minimize disruptions to a procurement cycle. Part of that process, an outcome prediction conference, is where GAO said that if the protest moved forward, MacroUSA would prevail.
“During that conference, the GAO indicated both protests would likely be sustained,” Michael Kraycinovich, associate command counsel wrote in the letter. The Army Materiel Command, on behalf of the contracting command, notified the GAO of its intent to cancel the acquisition of the iRobot and QinetiQ ultralight robots. It will also pay MacroUSA’s attorneys fees.
“I think it is fair to say that GAO only sustains protests where they conclude that there is a violation of law and regulation,” said Michael Golden, an attorney with the Pepper Hamilton law firm, which is representing MacroUSA.
The company's president, Robert Ramos, said the contracting command was forced to take corrective action. "No one can say this is sour grapes for Macro. This is just a really, really bad problem.”
The first protest came when JIEDDO awarded a sole source contract in December to QinetiQ for a robotic arm. Until that point, MacroUSA had the only robot in the program with a manipulator, although the original joint urgent operational needs statement did not call for one.
About 100 robots from each of the three vendors had been sent to Afghanistan for user evaluations, which wrapped up in the summer of 2012.
As the three companies awaited a decision on which would prevail in the competition, JIEDDO filed a limited source justification and approval justification form Nov. 30 to acquire robotic arms from QinetiQ. It ultimately awarded the company a $12.1 million contract to acquire 100 light-weight modular arms for its Dragon Runner 10 in December.
MacroUSA filed its first protest, accusing JIEDDO of “technical leveling,” in which a government agency asks a vendor to duplicate a technology that a competing company is offering. After that protest, JIEDDO canceled the acquisition. GAO then declared the protest “academic.” In other words,  since the contract was terminated, there was no reason to rule on the protest.
“Macro is still the only company that went through the evaluation process with a [National Institute of Standards and Technology] 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.
JIEDDO officials met with MacroUSA executives, and assured the company that there would be a fair and open competition for the ultralight robots, including one with a manipulator arm, Ramos said.
A JIEDDO spokesperson in an earlier National Defense Magazine story said that field tests showed that an arm would be useful for some users, and JIEDDO canceling the contract after the protest was a coincidence.She said it was decided that a separate competition would be held for an ultralight robot for explosive ordnance disposal teams that would include an arm.
Two and half months after the December meeting, Joint Program Office Robotic Systems, through the contracting command, awarded the two contracts for a total of about 320 light robots to iRobot and QinetiQ. MacroUSA was not aware that JIEDDO had handed the program over to RSJPO. MacroUSA in its March 20 protest said the sole source award justification allowed for six months delivery, so there was therefore no rationalization for an urgent need and sole source contracts. It alleged that the government agencies shared nonpublic information with iRobot and QinetiQ that MacroUSA was not privy to. It also alleged that “unduly restrictive” requirements favored the two larger manufacturers.
After undergoing an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) with the parties, GAO agreed, Golden said. In order for legal representatives to have frank discussions about classified material, the details are under protective order, and can’t be discussed — even with MacroUSA, he added.
“GAO was pretty frank in the ADR, and indicated that both protests would likely be sustained,” Golden said.
Ramos said: “Our assumptions that we had all along were right, that we never got a fair opportunity, that we never got evaluated, that they never had any intention of buying our systems,” Ramos said. “I feel there is a lot of favoritism,” he added.
Joan McCallister, a spokesperson for the Army Contracting Command in Warren, Mich., did not provide a response to Ramos’ allegations.
MacroUSA has filed a fourth protest with GAO over JIEDDO’s effort to acquire an ultralight robot with a manipulator arm.
David Small, JIEDDO spokesman, said June 19 the organization “is currently procuring the EOD dismounted robot (EDR). The solicitation period has closed and JIEDDO is in the process of evaluating proposals. The EDR is a separate requirement and does not relate to any other robot purchases.”
Ramos said requirements in the latest solicitation for the ultralight EOD robot describes the QinetiQ’s Dragon Runner 10. MacroUSA is competing  for this program, but filed the fourth protest over that solicitation before the submission deadline, he said.
Golden said: “They are concerned that these solicitations are not going to allow for full and open competition and make it more challenging for a small business to compete.”
Small said: “JIEDDO does not show preferential treatment to any particular vendor.  Our bottom line is to get the war fighter[s] the equipment they need as quickly as possible.” 

Topics: Procurement, Robotics

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