In­ter­view: Alan F. Big­nall, Pres­i­dent & CEO, Re­conRobotics

In an in­ter­view with the Ed­i­tor-in-Chief of SP’s M.A.I. Jayant Baran­wal, the Pres­i­dent & CEO of Re­conRobotics Alan F. Big­nall out­lines the suc­cess of Re­conRobotics as the com­pany be­lieves in “giv­ing the warfight­ers pre­cisely what they need.” Ex­cerpts of t

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Jayant Baran­wal (SP’s): In about seven years time since in­cep­tion of your com­pany, you have emerged as the sec­ond largest pro­ducer of mil­i­tary and po­lice ro­bots in the world. What do you at­tribute to this huge suc­cess? Alan F. Big­nall (Big­nall):

Seven years ago, all mil­i­tary and po­lice ro­bots were very large – 20+ kilo­grams – and very com­plex with ar­tic­u­lated arms, large con­trol units. They were trans­ported in a ve­hi­cle and op­er­ated only by trained ex­perts, pri­mar­ily dur­ing counter-IED op­er­a­tions. In 2007, we in­tro­duced a .5-kilo­gram per­sonal ro­bot that was a game changer. It could be car­ried in a small pouch, de­ployed in five sec­onds, thrown up to 35 me­tres and op­er­ated by any­one. Mil­i­tary and po­lice op­er­a­tors quickly re­alised that this mi­cro-ro­bot would save many lives by pro­vid­ing im­me­di­ate sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. This in­no­va­tion led to great suc­cess in the US and ul­ti­mately in more than 30 coun­tries world­wide. We now have more than 4,100 of our Throw­bot XT (TXT) sen­sor sys­tems de­ployed with mil­i­tary and po­lice forces. SP’s: Re­conRobotics (RR) has par­tic­i­pated in Counter Ter­ror Ex­pos in UK and USA, has your com­pany ex­plored the Asian mar­ket and par­tic­i­pated in ex­hi­bi­tions or demon­strated your prod­ucts in Asian coun­tries? Big­nall:

We par­tic­i­pated in DSA in Kuala Lumpur in 2011, and in the Land War­fare Con­fer­ence in Mel­bourne in 2012. In ad­di­tion, our re­sellers have par­tic­i­pated in coun­try-spe­cific ex­hi­bi­tions in many Asian coun­tries, in­clud­ing China, South Korea, In­dia and In­done­sia.

SP’s: Be­sides the US, which coun­tries ac­count for healthy sales of RR prod­ucts? Do you have a dis­tri­bu­tion net­work in In­dia and if yes, what is the con­tact point and who have you mar­keted your prod­ucts? Big­nall:

Our strong­est in­ter­na­tional mar­kets to date have been Canada, the UK, Switzer­land, Italy, Nor­way and China. Our dis­trib­u­tor in In­dia is Au­doViso Pri­vate Lim­ited, man­aged by Ashim Ku­mar. +91 11 4584 0000; mil­i­tary@au­doviso.com SP’s: From its de­scrip­tion, Throw­bot XT would be of good use to lo­cate ter­ror­ist in NLOS con­di­tions but in sit­u­a­tions where they do not have over­head cover, is it pos­si­ble to ma­noeu­vre this mi­cro­robot through open­ings made by fire or through an open win­dow in or­der to cover the sit­u­a­tion within the build­ing? Big­nall:

The Throw­bot XT is de­signed to be thrown – through a win­dow or door, onto a rooftop, or over a wall. It can even be dropped from the top of a three-storey build­ing onto con­crete and still send back clear video and au­dio re­con­nais­sance. The mi­cro-ro­bot op­er­ates at low fre­quen­cies, en­abling the trans­mis­sions to and from the ro­bot to prop­a­gate through walls, win­dows and doors. No other ro­bot in the world de­liv­ers this unique set of ca­pa­bil­i­ties. It is also im­por­tant to note that the Throw­bot XT is an im­por­tant tool for mar­itime in­ter­dic­tion and ship-board­ing teams. Be­cause of its unique trans­mit­ting fre­quen­cies, the TXT can be used to search one- and two-lev­els be­low the top deck of a ship, and the op­er­at­ing stand­ing on the top deck is able to still re­ceive clear video re­con­nais­sance. We also make a SearchStick that con­verts our Throw­bot XT into a pole cam­era, which can be used to search over walls or into at­tics, crawl spa­ces and even into the holds of a ship.

SP’s: What would be the ef­fect of rain, snow and wind on the op­er­a­tion of the Throw­bot XT since there are many oc­ca­sions of counter-ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tions be­ing con­ducted in ad­verse weather con­di­tions? Big­nall:

The Throw­bot XT is highly wa­ter re­sis­tant and can eas­ily with­stand im­mer­sion in up to 30 cm of wa­ter for up to 10 min­utes. It can also be de­con­tam­i­nated fol­low­ing use in HAZ­MAT sit­u­a­tions, and can be used in tem­per­a­tures well be­low freez­ing. More than 1,000 of th­ese mi­cro-ro­bots have been used in all kinds of weather for more than three years in Afghanistan, and they con­tinue to save lives and help sol­diers per­form their mis­sions with­out fail.

SP’s: What tech­no­log­i­cal edge does Re­con Scout have over its near­est com­peti­tor? Big­nall:

Our edge has al­ways been strong­est in giv­ing warfight­ers pre­cisely what they need. They wanted a throw­able au­dio and video sen­sor that was ul­tra-light­weight, quick to de­ploy, sim­ple to op­er­ate, easy to carry, ex­tremely durable and quiet in its op­er­a­tion. The Throw­bot XT de­liv­ers all of th­ese ca­pa­bil­i­ties and costs thou­sands of dol­lars less than any other mil­i­tary ro­bot. It has been bat­tle-tested now for three years and many for­eign mil­i­taries are now equip­ping their warfight­ers with this unique ca­pa­bil­ity.

SP’s: Since the Throw­bot XT can be thrown up to 120 feet (35 me­tres), can it be use­ful for sur­veil­lance in high al­ti­tude ar­eas as el­e­vated sur­veil­lance plat­form as a sup­ple­ment to UAV cover? Big­nall:

The Throw­bot XT can be used at any al­ti­tude, and we see no rea­son why it would not work on an el­e­vated sur­veil­lance plat­form.

SP’s: As de­scribed, the Re­con Scout Throw­bot de­liv­ers sit­u­a­tional aware­ness about what lies be­hind a door, down a hall­way, or over a wall be­fore the force en­ters a lo­ca­tion. What is not clear is what can the Throw­bot XT tell what is “be­hind the door” and how? Big­nall:

Once a TXT is de­ployed into an en­vi­ron­ment, an op­er­a­tor can di­rect the ro­bot to move deep into the struc­ture, down hall­ways and into rooms, and the video and au­dio sig­nals will still prop­a­gate through sev­eral walls to the hand held op­er­a­tor con­trol unit. This gives the op­er­a­tor tremen­dous stand­off dis­tance, which keeps him safe from hid­den threats.

SP’s: Is Re­conRobotics pre­pared to un­der­take trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy to Asian coun­tries in­clud­ing In­dia and help es­tab­lish pro­duc­tion line in the buyer coun­try? Big­nall:

We have not been asked by any coun­try to es­tab­lish pro­duc­tion in their coun­try. Our in­ter­na­tional buy­ers in po­lice and mil­i­tary seem very pleased with the su­perb qual­ity of our Amer­i­can-made mi­cro-ro­bot sys­tems, and have not ex­pressed a de­sire to change our man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem.

SP’s: Has the Re­con Scout IR been used in ac­tual com­bat sit­u­a­tions? Aside from use in coun­tert­er­ror­ism tasks in built-up ar­eas in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, how can this be used in open and forested ter­rain? Can it be used for sur­veil­lance in bor­der ar­eas by night? Big­nall:

Both the Re­con Scout IR and Throw­bot XT have been suc­cess­fully used in hun­dreds of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing route­and build­ing-clear­ing mis­sions, ur­ban war­fare op­er­a­tions, IED re­con­nais­sance and re­mote sur­veil­lance. It can be placed along a trail at night to watch for dis­mounted enemy troops, and is also ex­cep­tional when used at ve­hi­cle check­points to in­spect ve­hi­cle un­der­car­riages for ex­plo­sives or nar­cotics. The TXT’s in­frared op­tics al­low it to see in com­plete dark­ness.

SP’s: Are you also de­vel­op­ing IED de­tec­tion equip­ment that can be mounted on ve­hi­cles lead­ing a con­voy and which can re­motely det­o­nate var­i­ous types of IEDs be­fore the con­voy reaches the dan­ger zone? Big­nall::

That would be an ex­cel­lent ca­pa­bil­ity to de­liver to warfight­ers, but we have no plans to de­velop such tech­nolo­gies.

SP’s: Can th­ese mi­cro-ro­bots sur­vive IEDs? Big­nall:

The Throw­bot XT is not de­signed to with­stand an IED ex­plo­sion, but it all de­pends on how close the ro­bot is to the IED and the force of the ex­plo­sion. The Throw­bot XT op­er­ates very low to the ground, so in that re­spect it is some­what pro­tected.

SP’s: What fur­ther re­search is go­ing on in the com­pany to en­hance life-sav­ing re­con­nais­sance ca­pa­bil­i­ties of mi­cro-ro­bots? What per­cent­age of your over­all busi­ness is in­vested in re­search? Big­nall:

We are con­tin­u­ally re­ceiv­ing ideas from mil­i­tary and coun­tert­er­ror­ism teams about new tech­nolo­gies to add to our mi­cro-ro­bots, and our de­sign and engineering group is very good at bring­ing them to mar­ket. We re­di­rect the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of our prof­its back into prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and this strat­egy of con­tin­u­ous in­no­va­tion has served us very well. In 2013, we were named one of the 50 Most In­no­va­tive Com­pa­nies in the World by

Fast Com­pany, an out­stand­ing US-based busi­ness mag­a­zine. We are proud of this recog­ni­tion, which placed us on the list with Google, Ap­ple and Ama­zon, and it mo­ti­vates us to keep our in­no­va­tive edge.

SP’s: Could you give us some ex­am­ples of the ex­tra­or­di­nary work the mi­cro-ro­bots have done in sav­ing lives of warfight­ers? Big­nall:

We get let­ters and e-mails all the time from both warfight­ers and po­lice in­di­cat­ing that “Your Throw­bot XT saved our lives last night.” The “Know Be­fore You Go” ca­pa­bil­ity that our mi­cro­robots pro­vide not only pro­tects warfight­ers but also in­no­cent civil­ians. This knowl­edge mo­ti­vates ev­ery­one at our com­pany to ex­cel in de­sign­ing and build­ing game-chang­ing prod­ucts for those men and women who put their lives on the line in mil­i­tary and po­lice ser­vice. There are many SWAT pro­files on our web­site that con­tain such tes­ti­mo­ni­als, in­clud­ing this one from the French Counter Ter­ror RAID team: http://www.re­conrobotics.com/pdfs/Re­conRobotic­sw_RAID_mi­cro-robot_Toulouse.pdf

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