Honey, I Shrunk the Military Robots

The consumer robotics specialist gets small with its latest creation.

Rick Munarriz
Rick Munarriz
Apr 24, 2007 at 12:00AM

Is the world ready for a 30-pound military recruit? No, I'm not talking about kid soldiers. iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) announced that it is working with Boeing (NYSE:BA) to introduce lightweight unmanned ground vehicles. The reconnaissance robots -- under the name SUGV Early -- will begin rolling out next year.

The robot is smaller than the original 42-pound PackBot that iRobot has sent over to assist the U.S. Army and Navy in the Middle East. The more portable nature of the new vehicles will make them useful not only in military operations but also closer to home, where SWAT teams can use them to help raid tense criminal situations or companies can beef up their security systems with rolling camera-carrying robotic watch guards.  

Ever since iRobot deployed its first $45,000 PackBot into Afghanistan five years ago, the bipartisan allure was obvious.

"I don't have any problem writing to iRobot, saying 'I'm sorry your robot died, can we get another?'" U.S. Army Col. Bruce Jette told the Associated Press. "That's a lot easier letter to write than to a father or mother."

After that initial success, the contracts have justkeptcoming. Even though iRobot isn't on the same level as larger military contractors like Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), Boeing, and Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), it has become the brand that consumers associate with military robots that can navigate through rough desert terrain, climb stairs, and safely detonate roadside explosives.  

The company hasn't done it alone. Just as it's teaming up with Boeing, it has also hooked up with Deere (NYSE:DE) to develop the R-Gator, a 1,500-pound unmanned ground vehicle. Earlier this month, iRobot announced that it would join forces with Verro to market a robotic swimming pool cleaner.

With so many brainy engineers on board, does iRobot really need all of these partners? It probably doesn't, but here is where being a brainy dealmaker pays off. By lining up with big names like Boeing and Deere, its credibility and marketing reach grow. Quite frankly, this also increases the chances that it will be eventually acquired by a larger company.

With spotty profitability and a stock trading well below its original $24 IPO price tag, the Rule Breakers newsletter service recommendation is putting out beautiful robots but ugly stock charts. iRobot machines can get soldiers out of combative jams and consumers out of filthy homes, so it may be just a matter of time before shareholders catch a break, too.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of iRobot, but he does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.