As ro­bot­ics firm’s CEO, for­mer Is­raeli sol­dier’s in­sight of­fers an edge.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - Thomas.heath@wash­post.com

Sha­har Abu­hazira knows about dark places.

He had the dicey as­sign­ment of crawl­ing into tun­nels to find ter­ror­ists as an in­fantry of­fi­cer with the Is­raeli De­fense Forces.

“These are small and nar­row places, a very danger­ous en­vi­ron­ment,” the busi­ness­man said.

Those mis­sions pre­pared Abu­hazira, 36, for his work as the chief ex­ec­u­tive of a Gaithers­burg com­pany called Roboteam. It sells high-tech ro­bots ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out at least some of the danger­ous tasks he once per­formed, whether for a Na­tional Guards­man pa­trolling tun­nels on the border of Mex­ico or a sol­dier in Gaza, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

“I knew af­ter be­ing in com­bat sit­u­a­tions that I wanted to do things that will help pro­tect and train sol­diers and make it safer for them,” said Abu­hazira, an ac­coun­tant by train­ing.

He also knew he wanted to create a suc­cess­ful de­fense busi­ness. He has ven­tured into a crowded field against ex­pe­ri­enced ri­vals such as de­fense giant Northrop Grum­man and QinetiQ North Amer­ica, a pub­licly held com­pany based in Bri­tain.

Roboteam’s me­chan­i­cal troops keep the sol­dier/oper­a­tors far from the un­known. The ma­chines can snoop around cor­ners, climb up and down stair­ways, case an empty build­ing, lis­ten for a con­ver­sa­tion, cut a wire and even dis­arm a bomb.

Roboteam was started in 2009 and has grown to more than 100 em­ploy­ees, three-quar­ters of whom are U.S. mil­i­tary veter­ans. That makes sense: 95 per­cent of its $50 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue is gen­er­ated in the United States.

“The smartest thing I did is to hire only U.S. mil­i­tary veter­ans,” he said. “It helped us to get to the cus­tomer by bet­ter un­der­stand­ing the needs and de­vel­op­ing the so­lu­tions that the warfighter will love.”

Abu­hazira said that Roboteam is prof­itable. He would not say how prof­itable.

The com­pany has sold nearly 1,000 re­mote-con­trolled gad­gets to gov­ern­ments in 20 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, Poland, France, Italy, Is­rael, the United States, Bri­tain and Canada.

The ma­chines are de­signed in Tel Aviv and Mary­land, and are built in fac­to­ries in Penn­syl­va­nia and Bal­ti­more.

Roboteam’s big sell is mak­ing a tool so sim­ple that any­one can use it. There is no need to have a com­puter spe­cial­ist he­li­coptered in or have an of­fi­cer as­signed to the unit as “the robot guy.”

The busi­ness model is taken from a page of the Ap­ple playbook.

“Ap­ple took a phone that is more so­phis­ti­cated than any other phone, but made it with only one but­ton,” Abu­hazira said. “They made the phone very sim­ple and in­tu­itive. This is what we wanted to do with ro­bots.”

An­other piece is the ability to adapt the gad­get to the cus­tomer’s needs. Roboteam re­leases new ver­sions of its ma­chines once a year, sim­i­lar to the fre­quent re­vi­sions Ap­ple makes to its iPhones.

As Abu­hazira sees it: “We brought the Sil­i­con Val­ley ap­proach to the de­fense mar­ket.”

The giz­mos are so light that you can hoist one onto your back. The IRIS (In­di­vid­ual Ro­botic In­tel­li­gence Sys­tem) robot re­minds me of the toy Tonka trunks I used to play with. (My mother took them away a decade ago.)

The IRIS sells for $15,000 and is de­signed to strap to a sol­dier’s thigh. Sol­diers toss it through a win­dow or around a cor­ner so the lit­tle robot, which is built to al­ways land up­right, can sniff out dan­ger on the other side of the wall. The sales pitch is that the tablets used to op­er­ate the ro­bots are so sim­ple that a sol­dier needs zero train­ing with them.

“You throw it and just work with it,” he said. “You don’t need your com­man­der or some­one. You don’t need a man­ual. You have one but­ton, and it’s sim­ple to op­er­ate.”

Roboteam’s tim­ing could make it a for­tune. The U.S. mil­i­tary is in the midst of re­plac­ing 7,000 ro­bots that it has pur­chased since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, ac­cord­ing to Na­tional De­fense, a pub­li­ca­tion that cov­ers mil­i­tary busi­ness and tech­nol­ogy.

Abu­hazira said that the com­pany six months ago re­ceived $50 mil­lion from Is­raeli and Singapore in­vestors that will help it ramp up pro­duc­tion to meet the de­mand and per­haps even get into the con­sumer mar­ket.

In ad­di­tion to the IRIS, Roboteam man­u­fac­tures two other mod­els. The big seller is the MTGR — for Mi­cro Tac­ti­cal Ground Robot — which is about 28 pounds and sells for $70,000 per unit. The MTGR ac­counts for around a third of the com­pany’s rev­enue.

The bat­tery-op­er­ated robot runs for up to four hours and has up to eight day-and-night cam­eras span­ning 360 de­grees. There is even a mi­cro­phone for telling the bad guys to sur­ren­der. The sol­dier can run the MTGR from a tablet the size of a iPad from up to 1,600 feet away.

The MTGR is used mostly for tun­nels and cul­vert in­spec­tion to find or spy on the en­emy.

The third big gizmo in Roboteam’s arse­nal is the Probot, which is es­sen­tially a mini­trailer the size of a rid­ing lawn mower. The Probot is de­signed to carry — qui­etly — nearly a ton of equip­ment, am­mu­ni­tion or even in­jured sol­diers to places a Humvee can­not reach. The Probot comes with a “fol­low me” kit that al­lows the robot to see its squad and fol­low a few yards be­hind for 72 hours.

Roboteam was founded in late 2009, by Yosi Wolf and Elad Levy. Both Wolf and Levy once served in the Is­raeli Air Force and came from ro­bot­ics back­grounds. Levy is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Is­raeli oper­a­tion; Wolf no longer works on the de­fense side of the busi­ness.

They had an idea to bring un­manned, ground ve­hi­cles to land forces. Up un­til then, land ro­bots were the ex­clu­sive do­main of spe­cial­ists who worked with highly ex­plo­sive de­vices. They are known as EOD tech­ni­cians, for their work on ex­plo­sive or­di­nance de­vices. Sev­eral of Roboteam’s staffers are for­mer EOD tech­ni­cians with U.S. mil­i­tary back­grounds.

Wolf and Levy con­tacted Abu­hazira through a mu­tual friend, and he joined the Roboteam in Jan­uary 2012.

Abu­hazira grew up in a small city south of Tel Aviv and stud­ied ac­count­ing and busi­ness at a cam­pus in Beer-Sheeva af­ter mil­i­tary ser­vice.

“I left the mil­i­tary and thought, ‘It will be nice to learn busi­ness and ac­count­ing,’ ” he said. “I knew I was not go­ing to work as an ac­coun­tant, but it helps me even to­day. I have strong fi­nan­cial ca­pa­bil­i­ties.”

Abu­hazira had ex­pe­ri­ence in the mil­i­tary in­dus­try. Af­ter col­lege, he had worked more than seven years at Ba­gira Sys­tems, an Is­raeli com­pany that de­vel­ops train­ing and sim­u­la­tion tech­nol­ogy for the mil­i­tary.

Roboteam en­tered the mar­ket with a splash. The first big con­tract came a few months af­ter Abu­hazira joined the com­pany. It was a $9.8 mil­lion job to build and de­liver 100 MTGRs to U.S. mil­i­tary coun­tert­er­ror­ism units.

Other con­tracts fil­tered in, in­clud­ing a $25 mil­lion U.S. Air Force con­tract for a man-car­ried MTGR that beat out QinetiQ and iRobot, es­sen­tially es­tab­lish­ing Roboteam as a player, Abu­hazira said.

Roboteam re­leased five prod­ucts in rapid suc­ces­sion and won ro­botic com­pe­ti­tions in the United States, Bri­tain, Aus­tralia, Is­rael, Poland and Switzer­land.

“The thing I like the most is to sup­port the sol­diers,” he said. “That’s more my thing and not sit­ting be­hind a com­puter and run­ning big Ex­cel files.”

It also beats climb­ing into a dark, danger­ous tun­nel.

BILL O’LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Sha­har Abu­hazira, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Gaithers­burg-based Roboteam, over­sees the build­ing of spe­cial­ized mil­i­tary ro­bots. “I knew af­ter be­ing in com­bat sit­u­a­tions that I wanted to do things that will help pro­tect and train sol­diers and make it safer for them,” he said.

Value Added THOMAS HEATH

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