Even as applications and markets for robotics continue to grow, it’s worth remembering that an innovative product and wide demand aren’t sufficient to guarantee success. ReconRobotics Inc. has sold thousands of its Throwbot remote surveillance devices worldwide but has suffered a financial collapse because of problems with government procurement and corporate management.
“We’re insolvent. We owe between $5 million and $12 million to creditors, depending upon how many of their contingent liabilities are valid,” CEO Mack Traynor told the Star Tribune. “We’re trying to restructure the company.”
Throwbot’s early promise
ReconRobotics was founded in 2006 to commercialize research at the University of Minnesota that had received funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency and the National Science Foundation. The Edina, Minn.-based company has received orders for its Recon Scout and Throwbot from the U.S. military, law enforcement authorities, and fire/rescue teams in 33 countries.
The self-propelled Throwbot was designed to weigh only 1.2 lb. and to survive throws of 120 feet, as well as through windows or over walls. This was much smaller at first than other reconnaissance robots, which could even carry it to a location. The camera robot could also be mounted on a pole.
Throwbot and Scout are designed to be easy to operate and can include an infrared sensor. The miniature unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have been used by the U.S. military, law enforcement authorities, and fire/rescue teams worldwide.
The UGVs been deployed in the Middle East and in counterterrorist operations in Europe, and ReconRobotics made $21 million in sales in 2012.
Recon’s steady climb stalls
ReconRobotics had a partnership with the Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop autonomous reconnaissance robots for the U.S. Department of Energy. However, Recon’s drone research stalled, and it had to write off $2 million.
The drawdown of U.S. forces from long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan hurt ReconRobotics, as did the 2013 stalemate between Congress and the White House over the federal budget. This led to automatic cuts, including the cancellation of a $13 million U.S. Army order for 1,000 Scouts.
Since then, all but six of ReconRobotics’ 60 employees have been laid off. “We were on a roaring success for six years, and then it came to a halt, and I’m reacting to the market,” said then-CEO Alan Bignall in 2014. “Our biggest customer was the U.S. government.”
But some people said that military cutbacks were only partly to blame. “I lost faith in the management, specifically Bignall,” said Stephen Craney, president of RiverBend Electronics Ltd., which makes the Throwbot for ReconRobotics.
“There was a series of managerial mistakes,” said Traynor. He cited a doubling of real estate, sales, and administrative expenses in 2012.
Other executives have also departed, including Andrew Borene, director of business development and former director of the Robotics Alley trade group and expo.
More on Military Robotics:
- Russian Military Unveils T-14 Armata Semi-Autonomous Tank
- DARPA’s Robotics Fast Track to Aid Smaller Firms
- ReconRobotics Takes a Big Hit
- Red Mountain Pressures iRobot to Divest From Defense
- GuardBot Rolls From Martian Plans to Sentry Duty
- ReconRobotics Announces Sales Up 50 Percent for 2012
- U.S. Military to Spend $13.9 Million on Throwbot XT
Recon restructures to recover
ReconRobotics’ products are still viable, and it could return to profitability. Tony Christianson, co-founder of Cherry Tree Associates, raised several hundred thousand dollars this year to take out a loan from Bremer Bank to keep the bank from forcing Recon into bankruptcy. He is working to restructure the company’s debt to its many creditors.
In addition, the market for military ground robots is expected to recover as the U.S. Department of Defense modernizes, turns to robotics for more missions, and tries to reduce human casualties. That market was $3.4 billion in 2011 and could grow to $12.3 billion by 2018.