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iRobot sets sights at sea

The Roomba and PackBot manufacturer secures exclusive rights to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle for commercial use.

Seaglider University of Washington

iRobot has secured exclusive commercial rights to develop an unmanned sea-faring robot from a group at the University of Washington.

The Bedford, Mass.-based company made the announcement Tuesday at the annual symposium for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

Specifically, the agreement is to commercialize an AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) called the Seaglider.

The Seaglider was developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research, which funded the initial project.

iRobot believes the Seaglider has military application potential. The company's Government & Industrial Robots division, the same side of the company that developed its military PackBot, has been put in charge of developing the Seaglider, according to two iRobot sources.

A public statement from co-founder and Chairman Helen Greiner also indicated the company has military use in mind.

"We have a strong track record for transferring new technology from research initiatives into products that support military missions...licensing the Seaglider from the University of Washington will help our robots conquer new underwater frontiers," Greiner said.

As part of the deal, the University of Washington will retain the rights to continue to develop and build Seaglider robots for its own research use, according to iRobot.

iRobot is best known for its vacuum-cleaning Roomba and it's military Packbot, but the company does already sell one underwater robot in its commercial line. The Verro pool-cleaning robot crawls along the floor and walls of a swimming pool to clean it.

While not as glamorous to the general public as walking and talking robots or robots that drive, AUVs have been getting a lot of attention in recent years within the robotics community.

There's an AUV equivalent to the DARPA Urban Grand Challenge, the annual "race" of robot cars. The Office of Naval Research and AUVSI sponsor the annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition. The AUVs are judged on things like computer control, power management, and navigation. This year's competition will be held in July at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego. The competition even has its own Facebook group.