iRobot may be best known for its cute cleaning bots, but the company's origins are as much about military hardware as home helpers. It won its first major contract with DARPA in 1998, and in 2002 deployed its robots with American troops — the same year, coincidentally, that the Roomba went on sale. But bots of war apparently aren't worth it any more. Last week, iRobot announced it was getting out of the military business, selling its defense and security team to a private equity firm for $45 million.
The reason for this is pretty straightforward: military hardware doesn't make as much money as consumer goods. In the first nine months of 2015, iRobot made $24.5 million in revenue from its defense and security business, while its home robots division pulled in $384 million. The company has been under pressure from shareholders to focus on the home, with investor Red Mountain Capital, (which owns a 6.1 percent stake in iRobot) urging it give up its "continued commitment to the sub-scale, unprofitable and declining [military business]," in favor of "high margin" home robots. iRobot itself notes that despite the general malaise in the economy (who buys a floor cleaning bot in a recession?), its products are still selling fairly well in the US, and it has high hopes for expansion in China.
iRobot's military bots were all about distancing soldiers from danger
Still, there's no ignoring the fact that the US military is an incredibly important engine for driving research into robotics (among many other things). After all, the most famous robotics company of the 2010s, Boston Dynamics, also got its start with DARPA contracts before being snapped up by Google in 2013. That's not saying that decommissioned military bots are going to end up cleaning your house of course, but it's still interesting to check out the capabilities of iRobot's more "unprofitable" creations. Here are some of their most popular military bots:
- First up, the 510 PackBot, the company's most popular military robot. It's basically a grabbing arm on a pair of tracks that can be operated remotely. In iRobot's marketing speak, that means "increasing the standoff distance between you and a dangerous situation."
- The PackBot can easily drive up stairs, and uses it front flippers to help navigate tricky terrain. It's operated with a video game controller or tablet or laptop. It can automatically right itself, transmit satellite images of its location and GPS coordinates.
- It’s been deployed in over 30 countries, comes with an 80-inch manipulator arm, a set of four cameras (including one optional thermal cam), a two-way audio link (for hostage situations) and has a top speed of 5.8 mph.
- The PackBot has been deployed in a number of wide-ranging situations, from the damaged Fukushima Daichi Nuclear power station in 2011 to buildings deemed unstable for humans after 9/11.
- The 310 SUGV-2 is " "man portable" version of the PackBot, with the same tracks and flippers, and (a smaller) manipulator arm.
- Like the PackBot, it can be operated at a distance using a video game controller or just packed into a bag. (Incidentally, judging by its press pics, iRobot favors the Xbox over the PlayStation gamepad, though I don’t think anyone’s every tried to operate its bots with a Wii controller.)
- And getting even smaller, we have the 110 FirstLook, the main feature of which is that you can throw it. It weighs in at just 5.4 lbs (2.45 kg), and is ideal for "building clearing, raids, and other close scenarios."
- The FirstLook has the standard tracks-and-flippers arrangement, as well as a stalk like head with four cameras and a two-way audio link. It also supports a number of attachments, including a thermal cam, manipulator arm, and hazmat sensors.
- Like iRobot's other military bots it can also be used to create a mesh radio network. Simply chuck it into a building and it'll act as a radio node, allowing teams to communicate if there's no signal.
- Last but not least is the 710 Kobra — the bulkiest of iRobots military bots. It weighs 365 lbs (166 kg), can carry up to 150 lbs in weight, and is still pretty portable, able to fit into the back of most SUVs (with the seats down of course).
- Compared to the PackBot it’s much stronger, easily able to smash windows, cut seatbelt just by tugging on them, and lever open locked car doors. It can even drag an adult across the ground.
- It’s still pretty nippy though, with a max speed of 8 mph. It also has a dual track system and jointed arm mean it can lever itself over most obstacles, and right itself if it rolls over.