In Coda to Robotic FX Lawsuit, iRobot Introduces Its Own Version of Negotiator Robot
The last time I saw a Negotiator robot was in a federal courtroom in Boston, where Jameel Ahed—the founder and CEO of Robotic FX and the defendant in an intellectual-property-theft lawsuit brought by his former employer, iRobot—was driving the nimble little device around the judge’s bench via remote control. Robotic FX lost that suit last December, and as part of the settlement agreement, the Chicago, IL-based startup closed down and handed over some of its assets to iRobot—including the plans for the Negotiator, a tank-treaded device that can climb stairs and carry equipment such as video cameras and hazardous-materials sensors.
Now the controversial robot is about to be reborn, as a full-fledged iRobot product that will be available by the end of the year to police, fire departments and other agencies that need an inexpensive reconnaissance device for dangerous situations.
Even before Robotic FX went out of business, iRobot’s allegations about misappropriated trade secrets had cost the tiny startup a $280 million contract to deliver some 3,000 bomb-detecting robots to the United States Army—a contract that was later awarded to iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT). This was always the real payoff desired by the Bedford, MA-based robot maker, which had argued in court that Ahed had stolen elements of the design of its Packbot tactical robot, including methods for making the all-important treads, upon leaving the company in 2002. But it’s an interesting footnote to the case that by selling a few hundred Negotiators—which will be priced at about $20,000 apiece—iRobot may now be able to earn back the $2.9 million it spent on the Robotic FX lawsuit, and then some.
iRobot’s version of the Negotiator “is very much the design that came over as an asset in the settlement,” says Joe Dyer, president of iRobot’s government and industrial robots division. “The difference is that we have taken the robot, which was based on our design and our mobility but was being made, frankly, in a very crude production facility, and we have professionalized the quality, reliability, and manufacturing.” Ahed and a small group of employees had assembled their version of the robot in a basement space under Ahed’s father’s dental practice; iRobot, by contrast, is building the Negotiator at its engineering and manufacturing facilities in Mysore, India, outside Bangalore. … Next Page »