Introducing iRobot's Israeli Cousin: Roboteam

Don't look now, iRobot Corporation (NASDAQ: IRBT  ) fans, but it looks as if you have a new competitor to worry about -- and it hails from Israel.


Introducing iRobot's brother from another mother, the Roboteam MTGR. Photo: Roboteam.

Earlier this week, as rockets continued to rain down over Israel and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military rolled out a new tool for combat under Israel and Gaza. The Micro Tactical Ground Robot, MTGR for short, is a small, boxy tunnel-dweller, measuring 18 by 15 inches and weighing in at 15 to 40 pounds (with payload). The Israeli military has begun using it to explore tunnels reaching across the Israel-Gaza border, and also in underground tunnels within Gaza, where Hamas weapons stockpiles may be hidden.

iRobot's SUGV. Look familiar? Photo: iRobot.

MTGR is also, incidentally, a near twin to iRobot's small-scale PackBot, which iRobot calls the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle, or SUGV.

Placing a rush order ...
As reported on DefenseNews.com this week, Israel has rush-ordered 110 of Roboteam's new MTGRs for work in the Gaza conflict. Indeed, several MTGRs are already in use "with combat engineering units and specialized infantry against the dozens of tunnels and multiple access points concealed in homes and civilian structures throughout the Gaza Strip."

Israel isn't the only customer. Here in the U.S., on iRobot's home turf, the "Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office," or CTTSO, an arm of the Pentagon, has ordered 100 MTGRs for use by U.S. special forces and bomb disposal teams, and 35 additional units for use by interagency task forces.

... for an inferior product?
Yet it doesn't take a long examination of the technical specifications of Roboteam's MTGR to conclude that in several ways, it's an inferior product. A few illustrative stats will paint you a picture:

 

Roboteam MTGR

iRobot SUGV

Weight (without payload)

19 lbs.

29 lbs.

Capable of climbing stairs

8 inches tall

8 inches tall

Capable of surmounting obstacles

14 inches high

12 inches high

Can traverse water

Yes

Yes, up to 6 inches deep

Maximum speed

2 mph

6.2 mph

Battery life

2 to 4 hours

1.5 to 6 hours (depending on battery package)

Wireless control range

1,600 feet

3,280 feet

The MTGR is a bit lighter and a bit smaller than iRobot's SUGV -- thus easier for soldiers to carry in a backpack, and capable of entering smaller tunnels. That smaller size won't be of much use, however, in a tunnel longer than a third of a mile, as the MTGR would eventually run itself out of reach of its controller. So here, iRobot's SUGV has the advantage, with a range of operation twice as long as that on the MTGR.

So we see here that MTGR can dip its toes in the water, but can it swim? Photo: Roboteam.

Equipped with an upgraded battery package, iRobot's SUGV also has about double the battery life, triple the speed, and the ability to traverse water obstacles that would find the Israeli robot completely submerged.

... but at a better price
In one area, though, Roboteam's robot has a decided advantage over iRobot: price.

Judging from the terms of the contract that CTTSO signed with Roboteam, it appears the Israelis are selling their MTGRs for about $116,000 apiece. In contrast, the list price on an iRobot SUGV is nearly twice as much -- $207,000 and change, according to published figures.

Roboteam emphasizes its ability to produce "very low-cost robots" and to rapidly redesign and tailor them to its customers' needs. If iRobot isn't careful, it might just find its market stolen away from it by this upstart competitor. Considering that iRobot has already seen its sales of "defense and security" robots to the military shrink by more than 70% since the end of the Iraq War, this is not a risk investors should take lightly.


Don't look now, iRobot, but I think someone's sneaking up on you. Photo: Roboteam.


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