Some robotic face-offs take place in gladiatorial arenas, others on ping-pong-table-size soccer fields. Those fought in courtrooms can be just as much fun to watch, because sometimes they come complete with dumpster-diving private investigators, accusations of planted evidence, erased computer disks, shredded data CDs, and trade secrets discussed in closed hearings.
That is the case in a recent dispute between iRobot, in Burlington, Mass., known for its Roomba vacuum cleaner, and a smaller rival, Alsip, Ill.based Robotic FX. iRobot has filed two lawsuits against Robotic FX and its founder and president, Jameel Ahed, a former iRobot employee, alleging patent infringement and theft of trade secrets. The suits concern iRobot’s PackBot, a bomb-disposal robot widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan. iRobot accuses Robotic FX of using proprietary PackBot technology to create a competing robot called the Negotiator. Robotic FX denies the accusations and says that the lawsuits are an attempt to shut down a competitor that iRobot now sees as a threat.
In August, the two companies competed in a U.S. Army program called xBot, whose goal is to procure a smaller, lighter type of bomb-detection robot than those currently used in Iraq. The Army plans to deploy up to 3000 of the new robots in the next five years as part of efforts to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are responsible for nearly half of all coalition troop casualties in Iraq.
Analysts regarded iRobot, a 375''employee publicly traded company with revenues of US $189 million last year, as the favored bidder. But privately held Robotic FX, which reportedly has eight employees, won the contract, valued at $279.9 million. The news knocked iRobot’s stock down nearly 30 percent in the following days.
Last month iRobot was granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting Robotic FX from selling the Negotiator in its current design. The Army, which initially opposed iRobot’s request for an injunction, arguing that it could delay the delivery of robots to the troops, later decided to freeze the contract and reevaluate Robotic FX’s ability to carry out the contract.
The stakes are high for both sides. Ahed revealed during the court hearings that an unnamed major defense company is interested in acquiring Robotic FX, a deal that could reward its founder handsomely. For iRobot, the possibility of its allegedly stolen designs falling into the hands of a large, deep-pocketed competitor is a worrisome development.
The Army created the xBot program to address a pressing need of U.S. troops in Iraq. The robots currently used by specialized bomb-disposal squads are too big and too heavy for regular soldiers on patrol and convoy missions to take with them. A smaller, lighter robot would allow troops to inspect suspicious objects before calling the bomb squad.
To procure the robots, the Army prepared a set of requirements and organized a two-stage competition: a technical test, to see which robots met the requirements, and a reverse auction, in which the participant making the lowest bid would get the contract.
The technical test took place at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., in August. The robots—required to weigh no more than 22.6 kilograms and feature a manipulator arm, among other things—had to traverse sand, gravel, and water pits, maneuver their arms to lift objects, and position their cameras, in scenarios that simulated IED investigations.
iRobot brought two robots: a lighter version of PackBot and a new 14''kg robot called the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle, developed under the Army’s Future Combat Systems program. Robotic FX brought its Negotiator. All three robots passed the test.