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$280 Million Robot Dustup

Roomba maker accuses military contract winner of stealing trade secrets

5 min read

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.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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