According to National Defense magazine, earlier this summer, the U.S. Army quietly began introducing the first gun-toting robots into actual combat situations. The article states that only three of the robots have been deployed so far, and none has yet fired a weapon in combat. Nevertheless, the event marks a major milestone, one I think could spell bad news for iRobot.
The deployed robot, dubbed SWORD, is manufactured by rival Foster-Miller. iRobot also builds robots for the Army; its models can dispose of roadside bombs and perform various reconnaissance duties. But to my knowledge, none of iRobot's models are currently packing heat.
I'm admittedly uneasy about the prospect of armed robots inflicting mortal injury on humans -- but I also feel that widespread deployment in this capacity is almost inevitable. Why risk the lives of human soldiers by sending them into abandoned buildings in Baghdad or caves in Afghanistan when a robot can do the same job?
Apparently, the U.S. Army is thinking the same thing, since it's already approved SWORD robots for battlefield use. Reception among soldiers has been so positive that the Army wants another 20 more immediately, and it's already authorized the purchase of a total of 80 additional robots. As part of its $127 billion Future Combat System Program, the Pentagon is also predicting that robots will compose one-third of our fighting force by 2015.
Sure, iRobot can still grow by simply deploying newer versions of its IED-removing PackBot. On the home front, it still has its Roomba and Scooba robots, too. But if it wants to keep pace with Foster-Miller, it would seem to me that its military Bots had better start packing some heat soon. Otherwise, iRobot could risk saying "hasta la vista, baby" to a growing and potentially profitable opportunity.
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich fondly recalls his days of playing Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots, but he has no interest in messing with an armed robot. Jack owns stock in iRobot. The Fool has a fully loaded disclosure policy and isn't afraid to use it.