Monday, October 25, 2010

iRobot gets $1.82 million in Seaglider contracts

Seaglider, iRobot's chief ocean-monitoring robot, has received two contracts worth $1.82 million combined, iRobot announced a few minutes ago.

While any contract here is good news, to date the company's multi-million-dollar investment in oceangoing robots has yet to pay off. The company lost out on a major Navy contract a while back. I think there is still potential here, given the Seaglider's really cool features — it's ability to remotely operate up to 10 months at sea and it's ability to be fitted with various sensors, such as picking up submerged oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But, there is more competition in this space than in iRobot's chief land robot market, less urgent a need than dealing with roadside bombs and the like, and no true killer app yet that would turn this into a huge market.  Perhaps a global climate system with hundreds or thousands of Seagliders monitoring everything from salinity to acidity to ocean temperatures? If we had a legitimate naval threat like we had during the Cold War, I could imagine Seagliders being used as a movable sonar array. But that doesn't seem to be a priority with the focus on insurgencies and missile defense.

The company has also done some work on robotic boats, which could be used for patrols and the like, but does the Navy, dominated by ship captains and former ship captains, really want to give up the glory of human-piloted ships? I doubt it, even though it makes tremendous sense. The boom in submersible robots instead seems like it will be focused on the offshore oil production industry — an industry where iRobot doesn't really have a foothold yet.

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