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 mini-trailer 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.