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iRobot rival succumbs in court battles

Start-up Robotic FX, which just a few months ago had won a big Army contract, loses its legal fight and disbands entirely.

Established defense contractor iRobot has prevailed in courtroom battles against Robotic FX, effectively gaining an unconditional surrender from the upstart military-industrial wannabe.

iRobot and soldiers
An iRobot-supplied SUGV helps a pair of soldiers clear a building during an evaluation exercise early in 2007. U.S. Army

Late on Friday, Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot said that two federal courts had ruled in its favor. The U.S. District Court in Massachusetts determined that Robotic FX and founder Jameel Ahed--a former iRobot employee--had misused trade secrets belonging to iRobot, while the U.S. District Court in Northern Alabama determined that Robotic FX had deliberately infringed on patents.

As if that weren't enough, a related settlement requires the disbanding of Robotic FX, with certain assets to be retained by iRobot, and the banning of Ahed from competitive activities in the robotics industry for five years, according to iRobot. As of Sunday morning, the Robotic FX Web site was pointing to an iRobot page.

For a number of years, iRobot has been supplying the Pentagon with its Packbot technology--small, tracked robots that have been instrumental in locating and neutralizing explosive devices in Iraq. The company--best known for its Roomba, Scooba, and Looj gadgets for consumers--is also working on a related system known as SUGV (for small unmanned ground vehicle) as part of the Army's Future Combat Systems initiative.

A few months back, Allsip, Ill.-based Robotic FX had won a major contract with the U.S. Army to supply just those sorts of robots. But in a harbinger of the court rulings, the Army just days ago turned that contract--a $286 million, five-year deal to crank out up to 3,000 robots--over to iRobot. It plans to deliver the first 101 of those new robots "for urgent deployment."

In total, iRobot says it will have spent about $2.9 million on the dispute.

For the most thorough coverage of the months of legal wrangling between iRobot and Robotic FX, including links to the Massachusetts and Alabama rulings, check out