DARPA helps keep your floors clean

roombaiRobot is a global leader in practical robots thanks to military funding.

If you have ever seen iRobot’s Roomba floor vacuuming robot, or its Scooba floor washer robot, they are based on technologies developed for military use.


iRobot was founded by robotic engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design behavior-based, artificially intelligent robots. With a $5 million contract from DARPA, iRobot developed its proprietary AWARE Robot Intelligence System. That inexpensive control unit has been central to both its military and commercial products.

Originally, iRobot sold only to military markets, designing such products as the PackBot EOD (pictured left) for Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Then it designed the Roomba and Scooba home robots to vacuum and wash floors unattended and its revenues and market capitalization took off.

To date, about 1,000 PackBot robots have been sold for military and government use, whereas over 2,000,000 Roomba robots have been sold for home use. Whereas iRobot was previously a private specialty robotics vendor to the military, it is now a publicly traded company with a market capitalization of $400 million and $125 million in annual sales. Its robots are in mainstream use. And its volume production is allowing it to reduce unit costs and win more government contracts.

iRobot is an excellent example of the potential for government contractors to enter commercial markets. Companies like iRobot just need a little creativity, patent protection, and market savvy (available from companies like Defense Commercialization, of course).

Top 10 Spinouts from Government Research

spacewalkThe US government has funded up to 30% of all basic science research in the US in recent years. No wonder that defense contractors and government labs are a rich source of new breakthrough technologies.

From conversations with industry players and extensive research, here are our picks for the Top 10 technologies spun out from government applications.
What equally important technologies lurk currently undiscovered in defense contractor labs?
1. The Internet
Even if Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet, a DARPA contractor named BBN did. Under contract to DARPA to develop the ARPANet in the late 1970s, BBN led a team that developed the first router, the first network hub, the first email server, and many of the protocols used over the Internet including TCP, IP, UDP, and FTP. But alas, BBN did not patent or commercialize its technologies. It focused on research. The companies that commercialized these public domain technologies profited immensely: Cisco, Nortel, Lucent, etc. Cisco alone earns $5 billion a year on Routers containing protocols originally created by BBN. Let that be a lesson to defense contractors – great ideas will make it out to the marketplace, so you should protect through patents and commercialize before others do.

2. Wireless Communication

Qualcomm, the first major company to commercialize wireless communication, was originally funded by the US Army. The Army allowed Qualcomm to patent its chipset technology for CDMA communication. Once Qualcomm had that patent protection, it commercialized the technology, spurring growth of the entire wireless communication industry.
3. EZ-Pass
Most people do not realize that EZ-Pass was originally created by Lockheed Martin for the US Air Force. It was used for rapidly recording what pallets and military materiel were going onto USAF-owned aircraft. It was an alternative to manually whisking in bar codes on every pallet or writing down the serial numbers of equipment going on board planes. Lockheed Martin protected its intellectual property with patents, repackaged the solution as a way for highways to collect tolls more rapidly than toll collectors. and sold the business for $825 million in 1992.
4. Cordless Tools
How do you drive a screw during a space walk when wearing heavy gloves? The solution was cordless powers tools, created originally by Black & Decker under contract to NASA for use during the Apollo Missions.
5. Hands-free Headsets
When drivers use a headset with their wireless phone, they have NASA to thank. For walks in space during the Apollo Missions, NASA wanted astronauts to talk with hands free. Enter Plantronics which was paid to create a new style of headset for the missions, integrated into the space suit. It was the first hands-free headset and the start of a major new product category and company. That tradition continues with the new Aliph Jawbone headset available commercially. It was designed with DARPA funds, and meant to filter out extraneous noise from combat but equally useful for talking in Grand Central Station.
6. Satellite Broadcasting and DirectTV
95% of all television broadcasts are distributed by satellite. The leaders in satellite design and manufacturing are also the leading defense contractors — Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. In fact, the largest manufacturer of communication satellites, Boeing Satellite Development Center, is the original Hughes Satllite Systems that created both the leading satellites used today by cable companies. And DirectTV was originally based on the Global Broadcasting System that Hughes had designed for the military.
7. GPS
Millions of vehicles, ships and aircraft are equipped with receivers for GPS guidance and all wireless phones in the US must have GPS receivers for emergency location. We have the Department of Defense to thank for this, which built the 24 satellite Global Positioning System and maintains it with a $750 million annual budget managed by the USAF 50th Space Wing.
8. Supercomputers
The US government was the original funder of supercomputers and continues as the largest customer for supercomputers worldwide. No less than 30% of the Top 500 largest supercomputers in the world were purchased for government projects.
9. Solar Power
The US government has provided more funds for photovoltaic research than any other organization over the past 50 years. Bell Labs produced some of the earliest photovoltaic cells with government funding. The Department of Defense funded early photovoltaic cells for use on satellites. The US Department of Energy currently funds more solar energy research than any other government agency or single company.
10. Microprocessors
The mi
litary has always led the
market for rapid processing with increasing miniaturization. At a time when electromechanical devices were the only way to control devices, the US Navy contracted Garrett AiResearch to design the first processor for use in the F-14 Tomcat, first deployed in 1970. The Navy considered the design so advanced that it did not declassify the technology until 1997. The US military has funds approximately $950 million each year for new systems-on-a-chip, new semiconductor materials (especially GaAs), new ASICs designs, and FPGA (Focal Plane Gate Arrays) technologies.

Flexible Display Center pushes envelope on display tech

Flexible-Display-IIBoth soldiers and every PDA and cellphone user would love a color display that is flexible, requires lower energy, weighs less and can survive more falls and dings.

That’s one of the goals of the $48 million -funded  Flexible Display Center created jointly by the US Army Research Lab and Arizona State University.

Flexible Displays are on of those next-gen technologies that have been around the corner for the past 20 years, featured in every magazine from Popular Science to Wired.

Soldiers need the technology so that their batteries last longer and the screen on their laptops, PDAs and other communication devices do not break.  Commercial customers need it because phones will be more stylish, shatterproof and with longer battery life.

The FLexible Display Center has been widely covered in the News – see their website for more.

$151 million from DoE for Cutting-Edge Energy Research

Solar Energy FieldThe US Department of Energy has funded $151 million this year for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.  ARPA-E is meant to advance next-generation energy research the way that DARPA has advanced military science.

The new agency aims to support potentially revolutionary technologies that would be too risky to attract investment elsewhere.  These are exactly the kinds of technologies that the commercial market demands.

In this instance DoE’s ARPA-E is filling the role essentially of an angel investor in back-of-the-envelope energy concepts.  As in other industries, the energy industry has attracted plenty of venture capital funding but for later stage investments.  The early stage is very difficult when an angel investor is vital and hard to find.

This DoE funding will help many technologies bridge the chasm from concept to VC-fundable ideas.

The 37 funded projects cover renewable energy, energy storage, industrial and building efficiency, low-carbon vehicles and carbon capture.

Projects include efforts to produce gasoline-like fuels from bacteria, an all-liquid metal battery for large-scale energy storage and a new way to capture CO2inspired by an enzyme used in the body.

Read more about this new initiative here