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iRobot buys underwater minisub-droid firm

Roomba maker to clean up on sea floor

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iRobot Corp, famed as the manufacturer of the "Roomba" autonomous floor-cleaner, has bought underwater robot maker Nekton Research - suppliers of droid submarines to the US military.

“We believe that the underwater market is the next frontier for robots,” said Helen Greiner, iRobot co-founder.

“This acquisition positions us for leadership in robot solutions on both the land and sea.”

iRobot has already made substantial sales of ground-crawling machine warriors such as the PackBot to the US armed forces, in addition to its civil products. The company has also recently licenced US government-funded "Seaglider" technology from the University of Washington.

“Nekton’s Ranger will be a strong complement to the Seaglider we have licensed from the University of Washington," said Joe Dyer, chief of industrial and gov gear at iRobot.

"With these two unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) we will be better positioned to meet the needs of our customers.”

iRobot will pay $10m for Nekton, plus a further $5m conditional on "achievement of certain business and financial milestones". It's expected that Nekton will bring in revenues of $6m to $8m in 2008 from its existing customers. These include the Office of Naval Research, US Special Operations Command and the renowned Pentagon wingnut-boffinry arm, DARPA.

It's planned that iRobot will provide cash and support necessary for Nekton to produce a new and more capable version of its existing "Ranger" robo-minisub.

“We are extremely happy to be joining the iRobot team," said Rick Vosburgh, former Nekton president and now iRobot Executive Director, Maritime Systems.

“We expect to be offering a next-generation Ranger by late 2009, which would not have been possible without iRobot.”

There are already large numbers of underwater remotely-operated vehicles. However, these typically use a cable link to human operators on the surface, as wireless high-bandwidth comms through water are extremely difficult to achieve. There are a few machines which can carry out simple tasks independently under water - such as the Talisman from BAE Systems - but iRobot are probably right to say that there's still room left in the subsea droid market. ®

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