General D: Hometown Hero

I'm not sure how to react to General Dynamics' (NYSE: GD  ) Monday press release announcing a potentially $40 million indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract to produce Mobile Detection and Assessment and Response System (MDARS) robots for the U.S. Army. On one hand, I feel like a kid in a candy store, as the sci-fi robots I read about when I was growing up in rural Maryland become reality and start rolling across the land.

On the other hand, I'm torn. Should I feel threatened that General D is butting in on the market for military robots, since a company whose stock I own -- iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) -- currently dominates this field? Or should I be tossing confetti and cheering General D on in a homecoming parade? Because as it turns out, the MDARS robots in question are being manufactured in the very same town in which I grew up -- Westminster, Md. Before this development, our biggest claim to fame was being next-door neighbors to the good folks at Jos. A. Bank -- and robots are so much cooler than wool suits.

Back off, Jack
Getting back to that first hand: When I look at pictures of General D's newest recruit, it resembles, not only in function but also in form, a similar machine iRobot built in cooperation with Deere (NYSE: DE  ) . Competition doesn't get much tighter than that. And since iRobot just finished repelling a raid on its turf from upstart Robotic FX, shareholders can't help feeling nervous at the prospects of facing a much more established and well-funded rival -- and one that doesn't have to steal intellectual property to compete.

Problem is, it's only going to get worse. That Talon from Qinetiq sure looks mean. And Honda's (NYSE: HMC  ) Asimo is already walking and climbing stairs. How much longer can it be before, like iRobot's PackBot, the Asimo picks up a stun gun and starts playing RoboCop?

No, Fools. I'm afraid that competition is going to become a fact of life in this industry. The promise of robotics has been so long in coming, the industry so glamourous, and the contracts so large that new entrants are inevitable. We just have to accept that. For my part, I'm just happy to see that the latest iRobot rival hails from my own hometown. So forgive me for splitting my loyalties, but I'm going to be rooting for them both.

For more on the robotics pioneer and heir to the Isaac Asimov legacy, read:


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