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iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT ) may be known best for its consumer-focused Roomba vacuums and military-centric PackBots, but this small-cap company has bigger things in mind for the field of robotics.
Just last month, for instance, I noted that iRobot's RP-VITA medical telepresence robots were gaining traction faster than many investors were expecting. After all, though iRobot debuted the Ava platform on which RP-VITA is based at CES more than two years ago, it only just announced its collaboration with InTouch Health on the system last July.
Even so, RP-VITA also only received its FDA clearance to operate in hospital environments in January, so it came as a surprise when iRobot told investors last month that more than a dozen of the automatons had already found a place in the day-to-day operations of seven different hospitals across the U.S. and Mexico.
As iRobot CEO Colin Angle indicated late last year, however, the medical industry is only the beginning: "If we can survive and be cleared to operate in that most challenging environment, that will open the door to many other environments."
The next revolution
On Monday, iRobot announced the next step for its platform through a new partnership with Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO ) to create the Ava 500, a telepresence bot focused on enterprise customers "to enable people working off-site to participate in meetings and presentations where movement and location spontaneity are important."
For example, iRobot suggests the system could be used to "enable mobile visual access to manufacturing facilities, laboratories, customer experience centers, and other remote facilities in a supply chain."
Of course, the system will incorporate iRobot's mobile platform and impressive autonomous navigation capabilities, which enables the robots to not only create maps of unique environments through an initial exploratory session, but also to automatically navigate crowded corridors through a simple tablet interface, all while avoiding obstacles along the way.
Cisco, for its part, has integrated its existing TelePresence EX60 system into the Ava 500, which includes a 21.5-inch HD screen to transmit the remote user's image.
Coming soon to an office near you
Keep in mind, though, that the Ava 500 won't be available for purchase until early 2014. So, as with RP-VITA, we certainly shouldn't expect the new robot to materially contribute to either company's results in the near future. That especially goes for Cisco, which last year achieved nearly $46.7 billion in sales, or more than 100 times iRobot's 2012 revenue of just $436.2 million.
What's more, depending on Ava 500's yet-to-be-determined price, enterprise customers may need some convincing that the system is worth their money. Remember, RP-VITA reportedly relies on a leasing model for around $4,000 to $6,000 per month, though it's worth noting that Ava 500 might not cost as much since it won't need to be outfitted with undoubtedly expensive specialized medical equipment.
Still, it's a safe bet Ava 500 could save larger customers a pretty penny by eliminating the recurring need for expensive plane tickets and hotel stays.
While it remains to be seen, then, whether Ava 500 will be able to win customers' hearts as quickly as RP-VITA, I'm still convinced robotics will continue to play an ever-increasing role in our world.
In the end, as that role inevitably spills more into our everyday lives, iRobot shareholders remain nicely poised to benefit.