At Vecna Technologies, low funding for BEARs leads to building Bots

At Greenbelt-based Vecna Technologies, the robots under development could not be more different.

Perhaps the company’s best-known project is the Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot, or BEAR, a human-size android designed to pull wounded soldiers from war zones. Past iterations of the robot have had the head of a teddy bear.

Yet its most commercially viable robot to date is the QC Bot, an autonomous machine that looks like a cross between a computer and flat-bed truck, and is used to transport goods. At roughly $50,000 a piece, they’re currently being piloted in some hospitals to distribute medicine and food.

“We’re focusing on health care, but there’s certainly an extremely wide range of applications,” Chief Technology Officer Daniel Theobald said. “You just have to think about it for a little bit to think if you can deliver stuff around a hospital, you can deliver stuff around any other type of business as well.”

“I still haven’t gone to two hospitals in a row that want to use it for the same thing,” Theobald said. “The whole point of robotics is to build a machine and you don’t know what it will be used for.”

That thesis differs greatly from the BEAR, which was built for a specific purpose.

That project, now in its eighth incarnation, has been stalled at times by sporadic government funding and technological limitations. So while the BEAR has been used in drills, it has yet to see an actual battlefield.

“Whether it was our intention or not, had we gotten a whole bunch of R&D dollars from [the military], it probably would have kept our focus on that rather than big commercial products,” Theobald said.

“At least it gave us the breathing room for how do we take this technology and apply it to a problem that is economically going to have a return on investment?”

As the federal government, and the Defense Department in particular, look for places to cut expenses, companies such as Vecna will likely have to stay nimble. Theobald said its past struggles to secure funding, while frustrating at the time, may prove beneficial in the long run.

“The military is scaling back, so everyone is looking for how they can suck money away from anything they can,” Theobald said. “In some sense not having the large amounts of money that they’ve devoted to other projects has been a mixed blessing.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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