Reconnaissance robots to the rescue

  • Article by: LIZ FEDOR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2009 - 10:05 PM

An Edina company sells miniature robots to police and the military that let them see dangers before facing them.

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Alan F. Bignall, president and CEO, controls one of the reconaissance robots that his company produces.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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At first glance, the Recon Scout IR looks like a small dumbbell. But even at a mere 1.2 pounds, this robot does some heavy lifting.

Built by Edina-based ReconRobotics, the robot transmits video images of dangerous environments before police and troops enter them.

It is used by police SWAT teams to defuse violent situations and the military to assess hostile situations from a safe distance.

Last year, Burnsville police officers used a Scout to locate a person who was armed, suicidal, threatening officers and barricaded in a condominium complex.

Standing outside, they could maneuver the robot through multiple rooms and get clear video images -- even in the dark -- of the home's layout. They pinpointed the armed person's position so police could safely control the situation when officers entered the home.

Success stories like that have propelled ReconRobotics to millions in sales in less than three years. On Friday, traveling cases of miniature reconnaissance robots were ready for pickup for the U.S. Army, which is buying 150 Scouts under a $1.35 million contract.

"What wakes us up in the morning is saving lives," said ReconRobotics CEO Alan Bignall, who has led the company since it was spun out of the University of Minnesota in early 2007.

Planning to build the company in phases, he initially focused on getting one or two Scouts into the hands of law enforcement agencies across the United States. This year, Bignall and his staff are expanding ReconRobotics by marketing to branches of the military.

The robots range in price from $7,500 for the Recon Scout to $9,000 for its infrared-capable sibling, and they can pack lifesaving punches into the small, portable 7.5-inch-long frame. In 2007, its first year in business, ReconRobotics generated $480,000 in revenue. Last year, the company entered the international market and sales rose to $1.65 million.

This year, Bignall said, the company already has secured well over $2.5 million in orders, and he estimates annual sales will reach $3.3 million to $5 million. Within two to three years, Bignall said that it's "very doable" that ReconRobotics could achieve $20 million in annual revenue.

Conceived at the U

Research to develop the robot began in the late 1990s at the University of Minnesota, and the military started expressing interest in the U's work at the beginning of this decade.

The university received more than $6 million in government grants over several years to develop the robot. Prof. Nikos Papanikolopoulos, who is also director of the U's Center for Distributed Robotics, spearheaded the research.

Casey Carlson, a product engineer who worked on the Scout at the U before joining the company, said one of the challenges of developing the product was ensuring the sophisticated technology within the unit's tube would not be damaged when the robot was thrown. The solution: large wheels on the ends of the robot's tube to absorb the shock, no matter how it lands after being thrown.

For its efforts, the University of Minnesota, which holds patents on the robot, now has an ownership stake in the company.

"We swapped stock in ReconRobotics in exchange for the perpetual and exclusive rights to the university patents on the robots," Bignall said.

But the stand-alone company also needed to raise capital for the venture. During 2007 and 2008, ReconRobotics attracted $4 million in investments from Minnesotans. Twin Cities Angels, an investment fund, and some of its individual members have invested $750,000.

"We thought it was the right race, the right horse and the right rider," said Phil Walter, chairman of one of the Angels' two funds.

"When the military breaks loose orders for this thing, it'll break loose in a big way," Walter said. "This is cheap, this is not like buying a Humvee."

The William C. Norris Institute at the University of St. Thomas initially invested $100,000 in ReconRobotics and added $50,000 last year.

Mike Moore, the institute's director, said he looks for businesses that are developing new technology products that are socially beneficial.

"They were able to get to market with it and start building a pretty good order book," Moore said, explaining why he made a second investment in the start-up.

Across the board, the robots are Minnesota products. They were conceived at the U, are sold out of Edina and are manufactured at MFG Solutions, Inc. in South St. Paul.

Ryan Douglas, MFG's chief executive, said that each year MFG selects a company to invest in, with both cash and involvement ranging from business strategy to production management.

Douglas said ReconRobotics had "an excellent product," which has the ability to support troops and first responders in tough situations.

"When it was time to go to market, the Recon and MFG engineers got together and built the first units themselves," Douglas said, and subsequently he's added assemblers and manufacturing engineers.

More products are coming

Holding one of the Scouts in his office in the Braemar Business Center in Edina, Bignall said the robot is "a platform" for a series of products.

Already, the company has diversified its product line. Recently, it introduced "alternate-frequency" robots, which means a SWAT team or another customer can simultaneously operate two robots and transmit video images on two different frequencies.

ReconRobotics also is marketing a Scout model for under-vehicle inspections. With its tiny camera, the robot can move beneath a vehicle to scan for explosives, drugs or other contraband.

Bignall said the company may form a partnership with a company that has sensing technology that can identify hazardous materials.

"Minnesota has a unique opportunity to develop a robotics industry," Bignall said.

He refers to himself as the custodian of the investors' money and said he thinks the company likely will be acquired by a larger corporation in coming years.

Walter, who serves on ReconRobotics' board, said the company could go public or be sold in the future. But he thinks that's several years away.

"To me, this company exemplifies the American economic dream," Walter said, adding that once the Scout gets broader exposure in the marketplace, he thinks "it will be a struggle to keep up with demand."

Liz Fedor • 612-673-7709

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