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US Army xBot programme halted by IP fracas

'He stole our robot'

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A major American military push to get more combat robots into the field has ground to a halt following a bitter dispute between rival mechanoid makers.

The xBot procurement programme, run by the US Army's Robotic Systems Joint Program Office, is intended to obtain as many as 3,000 new robots and to do so quickly in defence procurement terms. The xBot plan calls for 1,000 machines delivered by December '08 and could ultimately be worth more than $300m.

The contractor that won the xBot deal was Robotic FX, a firm founded by a former employee of the famous iRobot corporation, probably best known as maker of the Roomba autonomous floor cleaner. iRobot has also supplied large numbers of its small PackBot droid to the US military for bomb-disposal duties.

Robotic FX and iRobot are engaged in a legal battle, with iRobot alleging that its departing employee stole proprietary technology which he then used to found Robotic FX.

Robotic FX's only major piece of business so far has been the xBot deal, which it landed after beating iRobot in an unusual reverse auction. iRobot has filed for an injunction to prevent Robotic FX supplying the allegedly pirated tech to the Army, but this has been resisted by government lawyers who say that any delay to the droid-building programme could put soldiers' lives at risk.

Now, however, following a complaint by iRobot to the Government Accountability Office, the programme has been halted for reassessment. ®

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