Last Februrary Helen Greiner, a co-founder of iRobot, launched a stealth startup company called The Droid Works. With only a skeleton website and very little information released, all she would say is that she planned to focus on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Speculation abounded. We here at Automaton guessed she'd be working on small or "micro" UAVs, given the dominance in the large UAV space by big defense companies who build things like the Predator and Reaper drones, as well as the prime opportunity to bring micro UAV research out of research labs. Turns out we were right!
Last week the National Science Foundation announced it had awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant to the Droid Works to create technologies that will allow small UAVs to navigate inside buildings.
This technology, applied to emergency response situations, will save the lives of police officers, victims, and suspects. Emergency response teams have been slow to adopt unmanned systems to aid in hostage situations, search and rescue, fire fighting, and armed standoffs.
The full text of the award is here.
The SBIR is a great opportunity for Greiner's company; government research grants like this from organizations like the Office of Naval Research, DARPA, and the NSF have been the genesis of the majority of robotics companies on the East Coast and in Pittsburgh whether or not they're still in the military space now. The next generation of startups have begun to move away from the government SBIR model as venture funding availability has increased; look at recent non-military startups like Kiva Systems, Heartland Robotics, or Harvest Automation. However, the Droid Works is likely to stay in the military space, given Greiner's original involvement with the government and industrial side of iRobot, so this route makes a lot of sense for them.
But it is worth noting that some potential changes to the SBIR program being discussed this week in Congress may change the game for new companies. With changes in elgibility criteria, startups that might otherwise have relied on SBIRs to get going may find themselves having to seek other options.
Previously: Former iRobot Chair Launches Droid Works