PackBot gets a promotion

iRobot unveils new battlefield robots

Robotics has become a disruptive technology in warfare, affecting all of the fighting arenas. Although unmanned air vehicles such as the Predator get most of the attention with stealthy attacks on terrorist targets, hundreds of ground robots are doing the grunt work in Iraq and Afghanistan, detonating roadside bombs, peeking in caves and around corners, and delivering explosives as mechanical martyrs.

Performing what Army officials call the dull, dirty and dangerous missions that humans avoid, those machines alleviate the military’s stress by addressing its two main challenges: the need to find cheaper counterinsurgency tactical solutions and the need to keep U.S. and coalition soldiers out of harm’s way.

But now, a new generation of battlefield robots is emerging. With expanded features and capabilities, those machines are taking over the roles of soldiers.

iRobot, famous for its Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner, unveiled two new robots at last week’s Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) conference in Washington, D.C. The Warrior is designed for urban warfare and will be available for deployment by 2008. The company’s Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV), still in development, will become part of a soldier’s personal gear as the smallest member of the Army’s Future Combat Systems.

Both are variations of iRobot’s popular PackBot unmanned ground vehicle, 500 of which the company has delivered to the Middle East so far. Like its relatives, the PackBot is a treaded robot that has flippers to climb stairs, a mechanical arm with seven degrees of freedom, and various cameras, sensors and communication tools.

The Warrior weighs 200 pounds, can match the speed of an Olympic runner and the ground mobility of a soldier, and can carry 150 pounds, said Helen Greiner, iRobot’s chairman and co-founder.

“The Warrior, with its capabilities and some autonomy, could start to act like a member of the squad,” she said. That capability “is paradigm-shifting.”

The Warrior uses a modular approach to carry various payloads, so its operators can configure it for weapons, reconnaissance, retrieving casualties from the battlefield and firefighting. Versions of the Warrior on display at the AUSA conference sported multiple shotguns and .30-caliber machine guns.

At a payload developer’s conference last year, companies pitched accessories for the Warrior, including infrared and night vision technologies, and devices to detect chemical and biological agents.

The SUGV, however, is designed to be “man-packable,” said retired Vice Adm. Joe Dyer, president of iRobot’s Government and Industrial division. A quieter, smarter, smaller version of the PackBot, SUGV will have multispectral sensors, X-ray capability, bomb sensors and other capabilities, Dyer said.

The SUGV will be the only small robot among FCS’ seven unmanned ground platforms, said Alan Walls, FCS lead system integrator and unmanned ground vehicle integrated product team leader at Science Applications International Corp. The Army plans to equip soldiers with 80 units for each of FCS’ 15 combat brigades, to be deployed around 2012. Meanwhile, FCS is using the PackBot for experimentation, he said.

The SUGV will operate as a node on the FCS network, using the Joint Tactical Radios System to transmit data throughout the command chain, Walls said. The military will rely on the robot primarily for reconnaissance using its changeable sensor capabilities.

The ant colony approachCurrently, battlefield robots such as iRobot’s Warrior X700 (pictured) demonstrate semiautonomous functions, such as navigation, mapping and perimeter operations.

The iRobot Aware firmware, sitting atop a Linux operating system, gives the robots many functions and uses behavior mechanisms to guide autonomous decision-making. But someday, swarming technology will enable the robots to work together, independent of human direction.

IRobot is working on a swarm project with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that involves 128 robots working as a team. The swarm passes relevant information among close members through infrared technology and thereby builds cohesive data for the group, said former MIT researcher Helen Greiner, iRobot’s chairman and co-founder.

The architecture mimics the way an ant colony works, Greiner said. “Individual ants have an agent architecture running on them, and each has an individual program, so to speak,” she said. Ants work together to haul items, build nests and find food, often communicating by leaving a trail for others to follow. Robots can be designed to behave in a similar way, Greiner said.

— Josh Rogin

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