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.
iRobot says it decided to revive the Negotiator because police and fire departments, SWAT teams, civilian bomb squads, and other public safety organizations were asking the company for a robot that could provide reconnaissance capabilities at a lower cost than the military-grade Packbot, which has a base price of about $75,000. Like the Packbot, the Negotiator is highly mobile, able to cross rubble and climb stairs. But it doesn’t have a manipulator arm or other advanced components that would drive up its sticker price. The basic model will come with just a wireless video camera, a videogame-style remote controller, and voice-over-Internet capability useful for communicating with hostage takers or disaster victims trapped in rubble. Optional accessories will include devices such as chemical and radiation detectors and infrared cameras for night vision. A fully kitted-out Negotiator could cost as much as $40,000, Dyer says.
Dyer describes the Negotiator as a non-military device designed for civilian first responders who will put it to only occasional use. It’s not waterproof, for example, and therefore can’t be cleaned simply by hosing it down, the way Army anti-IED units in Iraq regularly clean their Packbots. “It is a design for a niche market,” Dyer says.
Which, to me, begs the question of how Robotic FX ever got the Army to award it the $280 million contract—the so-called “Xbot” contract—in the first place. The exact answer may remain a mystery, though Wired writer Noah Schachtman suggested in an investigative article published in April that Army officials “tuned” the requirements for the Xbot competition in advance to favor Robotic FX’s product, which they saw as more affordable and easier to use.
Dyer, for his part, says iRobot would never pitch a machine as small and basic as the Negotiator as a tool for combat environments. Comparing the Negotiator to the Packbot, he says, is like comparing a Volkswagen to a Humvee. “It will operate fine in an urban setting with paved roads, but it’s not something you would want to take into the terrain of Afghanistan,” he says.
By contrast, says Dyer, “A Packbot is built to handle 400-g acceleration. It’s incredibly rugged. It’s combat-ready. Now, are there some military missions where [the Negotiator] could perform? Yes. But it’s not something we would have offered, with our brand and with our quality standards, in support of a primarily military mission.”
The first iRobot Negotiators will be offered for sale in the fourth quarter of 2008 and will be delivered “in the latter part of the quarter,” Dyer says. Meanwhile, iRobot continues to send Packbots (pictured at left) to Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to a few deep-pocketed domestic first responder agencies—the company says it’s built 1,600 of them so far.