U.S. Government Weighs in Against iRobot Request for Injunction Against Rival Firm

Declaring that “the lives of soldiers presently at war in Iraq and Afghanistan” could be placed in peril, the federal government has injected itself into the legal battle between iRobot and Robotic FX—asking a U.S. District Court judge in Massachusetts on the brink of this morning’s hearing not to let iRobot’s efforts to win a preliminary injunction against its rival’s operations delay the shipment of bomb-detecting robots to the Middle East.

If an injunction is issued against Robotic FX, which on Friday beat out iRobot to win a $279.9 million contract to deliver robots to the military, “soldiers will certainly be placed in life-threatening situations when a safer alternative exists,” the U.S. Attorney’s office declared in yesterday’s filing. A second filing, a declaration from U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Edward Ward of the military’s Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, echoed the U.S. attorney’s statement. Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are “the number one cause of Soldier and Marine casualties,” Ward said. “If these systems are not sent to the Theater in the most expedient manner, a far greater number of Soldiers and Marines will be placed in danger…”

On August 17, Burlington, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) filed two lawsuits against Robotic FX, an Illinois company run by a former iRobot employee. The lawsuits, one in Massachusetts and one in Alabama, claim infringement on patents for iRobot’s PackBot military robot and misappropriation and misuse of confidential information related to the machine. We’ve been following the cases, which involve surveillance of Robotic FX employees and other actions, but a hearing on iRobot’s request for a preliminary injunction against Robotic FX’s operations is scheduled for this morning in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Robotic FX has denied any wrongdoing and has questioned the timing of the lawsuits, which were filed after the two firms began competing for the military contract earlier in August.

Yesterday’s filings shed more light on the sequence of events. On August 3, the statements said, the military solicited bids for IED-detection robots it calls X-Bots. Both iRobot and Robotic FX submitted systems that successfully performed a series of technical tasks—including traversing various terrain such as sand, gravel, and rock, and demonstrating their robots’ camera functions and “claw” capabilities for lifting or removing debris that might conceal a bomb. The successful completion of these tasks permitted both firms to submit a bid for the contract, which Robotic FX won. The first robot systems are to be delivered next week, with 1000 robots due before December 2008, according to the U.S. Attorney’s filing.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said iRobot’s lawsuits were filed “in a forum that circumvents the usual forum for resolution of disputes related to government procurements…” It noted that “IRobot did not file a protest either with the Army, the Government Accounting Office (GAO), or the Court of Federal Claims.”

Ward’s declaration noted that the X-Bot is envisioned to be a smaller, more lightweight alternative to previous bomb-detection robots. “Current robotic systems are too heavy and bulky to be issued to Soldiers and Marines performing patrolling or convoy duties,” he stated. “The X-Bot is designed to provide a small robotic system for eyes on investigation and identification from a stand off distance.”

Both Ward and the U.S. Attorney’s office argued that it was not in the public interest to grant iRobot’s injunction request. The U.S. Attorney’s filing concluded, “In this action, the national security concern implicated in halting shipment of the robots is far greater than the purely commercial dispute over whether or not Defendant violated business confidences. At stake are the lives of soldiers presently at war in Iraq and Afghanistan with enemies that specialize in explosive devices designed to kill. The protection that the detection robots provide for our troops easily dwarfs whatever interest the public has in a private dispute between the corporations.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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