Army Halts Major Ground Robot Procurement

The U.S. Army has decided to halt the xBot ground robot program while it reassesses the ability of winning contractor Robotic FX to fulfill its responsibilities.

Run out of the Robotic Systems Joint Program Office (RSJPO) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., the xBot procurement calls for up to 3,000 ground robots and is worth up to one-third of a billion dollars. It was the first major military contract win for Robotic FX. The initial delivery schedule called for the first robots to be delivered under the program in late September, with 1,000 to be delivered by December 2008.

The Army's decision to reassess the program follows a protest of the award lodged with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) by PackBot manufacturer iRobot, which lost the xBot program to Robotic FX in September when the latter underbid it in an unusual reverse auction procurement. GAO has not yet ruled on the protest.

Founded by a former iRobot employee, Robotic FX is now locked in a bitter legal struggle with iRobot, which claims that the company stole its proprietary designs. When it discovered that Robotic FX's robots shared similarities with theirs, iRobot sent a cease-and-desist notice to the company in February and later filed for a preliminary injunction against it with the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts.

In light of this, Army Contracting Officer Joanne Byrd has decided to set aside the award to Robotic FX and conduct a reassessment of the company's "responsibility to perform the xBot contract in light of information that was made available to me after award, which concerned events that occurred prior to award," according to a letter from Byrd to the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency.

If Robotic FX is deemed "not responsible" enough to carry out the contract, and the company is not subsequently certified as competent by the Small Business Administration (SBA), then the Army will give the award to iRobot.

Complicating matters is an unusual intervention by the U.S. Attorney's Office, which filed a Statement of Interest with the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts recommending that the preliminary injunction against Robotic FX be denied and the program allowed to go forward because any delay would put lives at risk. "If the Court grants Plaintiff's request ... soldiers will certainly be placed in life-threatening situations when a safer alternative exists," the statement says.

Joe Dyer, president of iRobot's government & industrial robots division and former head of Naval Air Systems Command, bristles at the U.S. Attorney's argument. "The delivery of a knock-off robot into theater, in my opinion, that's where lives are most at risk," Dyer told Aerospace Daily.

Given the Army's decision to reassess the program, iRobot now argues that the U.S. Attorney's arguments against the preliminary injunction are without merit because the procurement is halted for the time being anyhow.

iRobot has delivered hundreds of PackBots to the military, primarily for bomb disposal, under a contract with the Navy, and also is developing the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) for the Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) program.