WASHINGTON — Textron’s acquisition of robotics firm Howe & Howe Technologies stemmed from a late night channel surfing session, where a fortuitous viewing of “Jay Leno’s Garage” turned into a big business deal.
As its CEO Lisa Atherton watched the show at home with her husband, Howe & Howe’s light tank drone wheeled across the screen. Textron had recently identified a gap in unmanned land vehicles, and this seemed to fit exactly the niche that the company was looking to fill.
“I saw this tracked vehicle kind of flying through the woods and up and over the berms, and so I went and did a little research," Atherton told reporters on Jan. 10.
Textron declared in October that it intended to purchase the Waterboro, Maine-based company. On Dec. 17, the deal was finalized, the company announced Thursday morning. The businesses have not disclosed the price or terms of the sale.
Textron executives believe Howe & Howe, which specializes in innovative robotic ground vehicles, is a natural fit for their company, which is known for building unmanned systems — predominantly drones like the RQ-9 Shadow and maritime assets like the common unmanned surface vehicle that can deploy from a littoral combat ship to find mines.
Meanwhile, Textron brings with it the ability to manufacture unmanned systems en masse and to support them in the field. Howe & Howe’s senior vice president, Michael Howe, said his company’s inventiveness, coupled with Textron’s experience selling unmanned systems to the government, “makes for an extremely formidable combination.”
Atherton said she is looking forward to getting Howe & Howe the investment dollars necessary to start work on new products and make existing ones more robust.
“Mike and Geoff [Howe, the company’s other founder] both have a ton of great ideas," she said. "They have ideas that they’ve sketched out in their books forever that they just haven’t had the opportunity to do the investment for.”
Several of Howe & Howe’s robotic land vehicles have been evaluated by the U.S. Army. Its Ripsaw vehicle — the small unmanned tank seen on “Jay Leno’s Garage” — has undergone testing at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. But when sequestration slowed down funding of tests, the Howe brothers looked for other venues to promote it, landing the product a role in the 2015 classic “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“That speaks to their ingenuity, their ability to survive through sequestration as a small company,” Atherton said.
Howe & Howe’s RS2-H1 robot, invented to carry soldiers' gear, is competing against three other unmanned land vehicles for the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport program contract. Two Army infantry brigade combat teams and an undisclosed Marine unit are currently assessing the four contenders ahead of a downselect, Army Times reported last year.
Atherton named that opportunity as one of the four big programs she’s hoping Textron can win in 2019.
Updated on 1/10/19 at 1:10 p.m with quotes from Textron CEO Lisa Atherton.