iRobot Battles Back

iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) is enlisting with the U.S. Army again. The consumer and military robotics specialist has been awarded a contract that could be worth as much as $286 million over the next five years.

Sure, iRobot is no stranger to the front line. The company has deployed more than 1,200 of its PackBot automatons, used mostly to detect and safely clear roadside explosives. This new contract will find enhanced PackBots playing a bigger role in preparing and assisting soldiers.

iRobot has known all along that its military robots could do more than play the real world's version of Minesweeper. It hasn't done it alone. It teamed up with Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) earlier this year to introduce lightweight unmanned ground vehicles, just as it has hooked up with Deere (NYSE: DE  ) to develop the R-Gator (which at 1,500 pounds, is 50 times bigger than the 30-pound SUGV Early vehicle that iRobot produced with Boeing).

Are we getting to the point where robots will fight our wars? Not even close, but the new deal -- in which iRobot will deliver 101 of the 3,000 robots immediately -- is another crisp automaton's step in that direction.

This is obviously a big deal for iRobot. Shares opened 12% higher on the news yesterday, but gave back much of that, sitting at an increase of just more than 3% as of this writing. A $286 million deal wouldn't really move the needle if this were a major defense contractor like Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , Boeing, or Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  ) . It means so much more when it's a deal with an upstart like iRobot or unmanned aircraft specialist AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV  ) .

It may not be a beefy bottom-line contributor given the low-cost margins typically associated with military bidding battles, but it once again validates iRobot. That's not too shabby for a company that most people still associate with the Roomba programmable orbs that vacuum floors.

With the stock trading well below its original $24 IPO price tag, the Rule Breakers newsletter recommendation may open a few eyes here. Investors who have been concerned about the company's profitability or how it came up short earlier this year in its bid on a big military contract can breathe a little easier.

iRobot won this battle, but the war goes on.

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