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Robot Security Investments

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted May 17, 2013

iRobot Corp. (NASDAQ: IRBT) has revealed that it will supply military PackBot robots to Brazil in a deal worth $7.2 million. The robots, which have already seen military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and have been used in the Fukushima disaster area in Japan, will provide security patrols at the upcoming 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

CNET reports that Brazil will receive 30 PackBot 510 units, and the contract is expected to run through December 2013. These cost about $100,000 to $200,000 individually. The deal with iRobot covers all services, parts, and related equipment.

The PackBot features cameras and other sensors which allow for remote-controlled inspection of suspicious objects, persons, or areas, thereby keeping operators at a safe distance. Although many thousands of soldiers and security personnel will operate in each of the 12 cities involved in the World Cup, the PackBot will operate with them, providing additional security options.

The PackBots have not only been used for reconnaissance, route clearance, hazardous materials detection, and bomb disposal operations, but have also been used in the recent Boston bombings to inspect the car hijacked by the suspects.

Boston and Latin America

Meanwhile, the deal is significant for other reasons as well. The Latin American economies are advancing swiftly, and Brazil now ranks as the world’s seventh-biggest economy. It also happens to be the 16th largest export partner for Massachusetts and the 17th largest import partner.

The Boston Herald reports that over 2012, Brazil exported $220.8 million in goods and services to Massachusetts and received $443.1 million in return. Moreover, Hopkinton-based EMC (NYSE: EMC) opened up a new R&D facility in Rio de Janeiro. Covidien (NYSE: COV), a Mansfield-based medical device manufacturer, has business operations presence in South America. And a Brazilian scientist is co-founder of the Hub-based Bioarray Therapeutics.

In the summer of 2013, Copa Airlines will unveil the first non-stop daily service connecting Boston and Panama City. Connection options will link up 57 other sites across Latin America.

All of this makes for an exceptionally well-knit business relationship between the state of Massachusetts and Latin America. iRobot, as you may have guessed, is also based in Massachusetts—in Bedford. quotes iRobot’s spokesperson, Matt Lloyd:

“Tactical mobile robots like PackBot and FirstLook provide a way for first responders to investigate dangerous objects and environments from a safe standoff distance. These robots have been used for a variety of law enforcement missions and disaster response operations, including after 9/11 to search buildings and after the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident to obtain radiation data and assist with clean-up efforts.”

The Robotic Future

All of this certainly sounds like great news – and, incidentally, is a great example of how the robotics sector is continually finding new interested parties and new applications. However, the biggest problem the robotics sector as a whole continues to grapple with is that of combating the popular fear of robots gone mad.

As robotic platforms and systems increasingly gain prominence in healthcare and delivery situations, robot manufacturers keep trying to humanize their products. They also try to incorporate redundant levels of safety protocols. Both of these serve to decrease the immediate discomfort (or sense of alienation, really) robots can inspire – in no small part due to their oft-suspect status in popular fiction and film.

While robots have certainly been a huge help to military forces and bomb detection squads, it’s uncertain how the idea of robotic patrols may go over with tens of thousands of sports fans.

It’s easier to sell the public on the immediate advantages that robotic systems present in the context of discrete security situations – airports, for example. It could be a whole different ball-game to expect sports fans to quickly become comfortable with a bunch of mechanical security units. But we’ll just have to wait and see how this one plays out.

Meanwhile, from an investment perspective, the focus remains on healthcare and pharmacy in connection with robotics. As the U.S. baby boomers continue to retire in droves and the demand for healthcare services skyrockets in the coming years, robotics will feature in ever-greater prominence.

More recently, robotic systems have taken up the job of medication dispensing, which is actually proving quite the lifesaver, since it eliminates human error and makes for vastly greater efficiencies by freeing up personnel for more complex tasks.


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