Big news comes in small packages at iRobot
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded iRobot a contract to design and develop a little widget dubbed "LANdroid" on Monday. Small as a pack of playing cards, and as cheap as $100 when produced in volumes of 1,000 units or more, this tiniest member of the iRobot family has big potential -- both military and commercial.
Now, you can read all about the little guy in a DARPA-published pamphlet on the project, but the basic outlines go like this: You know how in the old WWII movies, as shells explode around a squad of beleaguered GI's, the squad leader exclaims in surprise: "That's our artillery!" He then calls over his radio man and tells him: "Call HQ! Tell them to cease firing!" (Sorry for all the shouting. Artillery is loud.) The radio man then proceeds to call HQ, but can't get through. Cursing ensues.
Well, that's the problem the LANdroid aims to fix: Making sure that soldiers in the field never get out of touch with "HQ," or with each other. Independently operating, tough as nails, and visually resembling the SUGV that iRobot has already put together in conjunction with SAIC
And that's just the beginning. Say one of the little buggers gets stomped on by a bad guy, creating a "blind spot" in the network. Well, another LANdroid will sense the problem, and independently reposition itself to reestablish communications. Thus, a LANdroid-based network will be self-healing.
Cool idea. But what's it worth?
Quoting from the DARPA pamphlet, "LANdroids must be simple and inexpensive enough to be deployed in large numbers." How large? Well, if all goes as planned, LANdroids aren't supposed to weigh more than a pound or two each. Assume we've got 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, times two 'droids apiece, times a $100 price tag on each; you're quickly talking (pun intended) tens of millions of dollars in ultimate value. More, if LANdroids are bought for use both in peacetime and war. And given that they're a disposable commodity, only expected to operate for a few hours, or at most a few days, LANdroid sales could generate additional millions of dollars in revenue over the course of years.
And that's just from the military
One of the biggest complaints of commercial cell phone users historically, right up there with termination fees and phone number portability, have been problems related to dropped calls, blind spots, and "too few bars" of signal. Once iRobot gets up to scale developing LANdroids for the military, I see significant potential for rolling out this concept to the commercial market.
You can't tell me that telcos like AT&T
The press release on iRobot's latest DARPA award may not have stated a price tag on the project. But that doesn't mean it's worth anything less than a lot.