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As wars near end, robot firm battling

Bedford’s iRobot fears cutbacks

The House Armed Services Committee this week voted to provide nearly $100 million in new funding for unmanned ground systems, such as the one above, iRobot’s specialty. The House Armed Services Committee this week voted to provide nearly $100 million in new funding for unmanned ground systems, such as the one above, iRobot’s specialty. (Scoot Nelson/Getty Images)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / May 12, 2012
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WASHINGTON - IRobot, the scrappy Bedford start-up that has earned millions of dollars selling products that help safeguard troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is aggressively lobbying lawmakers to forestall cuts in Pentagon spending, according to a review of federal records.

For most of the past decade, the company relied on its surveillance robots to largely sell themselves as it earned a reputation as an innovative developer of high-tech battlefield solutions. Now, with the wars winding down and budget pressures ramping up, that’s not enough.

In the last 2 1/2 years, the company has spent more than half a million dollars on three teams of Washington lobbyists, many of them former congressmen or staffers. The amount, nearly double what it spent in the previous seven years, is part of a massive effort by defense contractors across the nation to protect their turf - and sales.

For iRobot, the effort appears to be paying early dividends.

The House Armed Services Committee this week voted to provide nearly $100 million in new funding for unmanned ground systems and has listed as one of its priorities this year funding programs to counter improvised explosive devices and to bolster “unmanned intelligence’’ projects.

Outfitted with cameras and sensors, robots help identify roadside bombs, explosive-laden vehicles, and booby traps so soldiers don’t have to be put at risk.

IRobot's interim general manager for defense and security, Tim Trainer, hailed the committee’s commitment as a “an understanding that IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are here to stay.’’

Yet some defense specialists say the company’s lobbying is more indicative of an industrywide effort to undo Pentagon attempts to cut spending and rethink strategic priorities.

“Their value to the military so far is marginal,’’ Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant at Source Associates in Arlington, Va., said of iRobot’s devices.

The robots mostly get high marks on the battlefield, but the need for their services is dwindling. Thompson said the Massachusetts congressional delegation needs to make sure their support does not go to a contractor whose products do not yield a high benefit across the military.

After the House committee passed its version of the defense budget this week - at $642 billion, $8 billion more than requested by the Pentagon - military officials expressed concern that lawmakers are larding up the proposal with pet projects.

“If Congress now tries to reverse many of the tough decisions that we reached by adding several billion dollars to the president’s budget request, then they risk not only potential gridlock . . . they could force the kind of trade-offs that could jeopardize our national defense,’’ Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday.

IRobot has secured a formidable lobbying team, including two former members of Congress: Charlie Rose, a Democrat from North Carolina, and Ron Klink, a former Democrat from Pennsylvania. One of the company’s main lobbyists, hired this year to the tune of $10,000 a month, is Mick Nardelli, a former aide to Representative John Tierney, the records show. The district of Tierney, a Salem Democrat, includes iRobot’s headquarters.

The company, founded in 1990 by MIT robotics scientists, has become one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of robotic systems for both the military and commercial markets, with annual sales of more than $450 million. Among its most popular consumer products is the Roomba vacuum.

It is defense and security business, however, that has fueled its meteoric growth. The unit’s revenues rose from $11 million in 2003 to $187 million in 2011, according to company spokesman Charles Vaida. Much of the increase came from the sale of 5,000 of its Unmanned Ground Vehicle systems to the military, including the so-called Packbot used for close-up surveillance of roadside bombs.

But the company’s outlook has dimmed recently with growing pressure to cut defense spending and as combat operations overseas diminish.

Last year iRobot lost a key Army subcontract for a suite of robotic ground vehicles and had to lay off several dozen employees in anticipation of more Pentagon budget cuts. In February, it reported that it expects a 20 percent decrease this year in its government business. So far this year, total company revenue is down nearly 10 percent.

Joe Dyer, a retired Navy admiral and iRobot’s chief strategy officer, said the company believes it is more important than ever for it to have a voice in the budgeting and policymaking debates in Washington, where iRobot has a small office near the Pentagon in northern Virginia.

“We are there because so much of our defense business and government policy development is there,’’ he said.

A main concern is that as spending decreases, Congress will fund big-ticket weapons such as ships and airplanes at the expense of innovative technologies such as unmanned platforms, he said.

“We think that is wrong-headed,’’ Dyer said. “We think unmanned systems have an important and beneficial role. We’re working hard to educate congressmen. Many don’t have any idea what a robot is or what it does.’’

Dyer said the company is also relying on its lobbying power to help identify other potential uses for its products by the government, including other branches of the military and the Department of Homeland Security.

Last month the company announced its first sale to a US nuclear power plant after sending four Packbots to Japan to help monitor radiation and assist with cleanup after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Yet the focus of much of the company’s lobbying efforts, according to a spokesman, is a group of lawmakers called the Unmanned Systems Caucus, which includes more than 50 House members headed by Representative Howard “Buck’’ McKeon, the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The caucus’s website says its mission is to “support policies and budgets that promote a larger, more robust national security unmanned system capability.’’ In addition to iRobot, Foster-Miller of Waltham is competing for such contracts.

Others say the main goal is to keep the contracts flowing whether the military needs the equipment or not.

“The defense industry is fighting a lot more than it really had to during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,’’ said Ben Freeman, a national security researcher at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington. “They are lobbying more aggressively and looking to see how, if the [Pentagon] budget is tight, how they can find more government money.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Tim Trainer as "Tom." Trainer is interim general manager for iRobot's defense and security unit, not vice president. Also, Joe Dyer is iRobot's chief strategy officer, not chief operating officer.

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