iRobot swims ahead without Brooks

$10 million Nekton Research acquisition will grow unmanned underwater vehicles product line and contract revenue, iRobot says.

Nekton Research's Ranger UUV. Nekton Research

iRobot plans to acquire an underwater robotics company for $10 million, the company announced Monday.

The announcement comes one week after iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks said he will step down as iRobot's chief technology officer to pursue a new venture. While Brooks will remain on iRobot's board, his move has left some people questioning what's next for the growing robotics company.

Here's one answer the company seems keen to make known.

"We believe that the underwater market is the next frontier for robots. This acquisition positions us for leadership in robot solutions on both the land and sea," Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of iRobot, said in a statement.

iRobot predicts that the purchase of Nekton Research will garner it up to $8 million in product and contract revenue for 2009. The deal also expands iRobot's client list to include several agencies in the U.S. Navy.

Nekton Research's Transphibian robot aka Madeline is used for clearing underwater landmines. Nekton Research

Nekton's products, according to iRobot, will dovetail with the Seaglider, an AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) iRobot purchased the commercial rights to develop from the University of Washington in June.

Nekton Research, based in Durham, N.C., was founded by a group of faculty from Duke University. It makes about five types of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and related robotics technology.

The Ranger is for search and underwater surveying with a faster version called the Nekton High Speed UUV. Nekton has several different fin-equipped UUVs when specific maneuverability is an issue, as with its Transphibian robot for clearing underwater landmines.

The BioBay is the sea equivalent of a chemical detection robot and can also take water samples. It's currently being used by the EPA in several areas where contaminated water is a concern, according to Nekton Research. Nekton Research is also developing a team of tiny swarming underwater robots called MicroHunters. They can be sent en masse for scoping out large areas of water.

One from a team of MicroHunters, small swarming underwter robots being developed by Nekton Research. Nekton Research

In Monday morning's announcement, iRobot specifically called attention to the fact that Nekton's clients include: the Office of Naval Research, the Naval Undersea Warfare Command, the Naval Air Systems Command, and the U.S. Special Operations Command.

iRobot recently signed a new contract with the U.S. Army worth up to $200 million over five years. The flexible contract makes it possible for iRobot to sell any new products and services it develops during that time to the Army, while giving the government the right to change its commitment on the top dollar contract amount.

Does iRobot have its sights on conquering the U.S. Navy as its next big client?

The Bedford, Mass.-based robotics company has signed a definitive agreement to buy Nekton Research with the full transaction expected to be completed by this Friday, September 12. The acquisition terms include the option for an additional payment of $5 million to Nekton Research "based on the achievement of certain business and financial milestones," according to iRobot.

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