iRobot pushes robots into new territory

A new breed of UGVs will provide direct support for combat missions in Afghanistan

The war in Iraq drove rapid acquisition of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), primarily to deal with the threat of improvised explosive devices. But the shift of operations from Iraq to Afghanistan is driving a shift in the demands on robots, said retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Dyer, president of the Government and Industrial Robots Division at iRobot.

“Iraq was and is an urban battle, and Afghanistan is an infantryman's battle,” Dyer said. “The difference is one of driving to work and hiking to work. So there's a tremendous need-shift to lighter and more single-man transportable robots.”

The demand for UGVs originated in the realm of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), Dyer said. But that role is changing. “What you're seeing coming out of the Future Combat Systems experimentation and route clearance and other initiatives is robots coming into what we call the big army, coming into the infantry,” Dyer said. As a result, ground robots are moving beyond their roles in bomb disposal and into more direct combat support missions.

The small UGV iRobot developed under the FCS program reduced the weight of a portable robot from 60 pounds to 30 pounds, Dyer said. Now that the Defense Department is restructuring FCS, those robots will be widely distributed across the Army’s brigade combat teams as part of Spinout 1.

But weight reduction isn’t the only way robots are evolving to meet the demands of broader military missions. Warrior is one example of a multifunction robot that will soon find its way into EOD, reconnaissance and troop-support roles. It is a 300-pound robot now in trials and expected to be in full production later this year.

“It twice now has participated in the Marine Corps Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand,” Dyer said. “The robot is capable of carrying a 150-pound payload over rough terrain. It can run faster than a soldier and can do it for 20 miles, so we look at that robot as important in DOD, certainly in replacing some older, obsolete, slow robots.”

On the smaller side, iRobot is developing throwbots — small robots that warfighters can toss into an area to carry out a support mission. One of them is LANdroid, which the company is developing under a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“The LANdroid robot is really part of the DARPA program to develop a mobile ad hoc network,” Dyer said. “This is a robot that can move with the troops, that has an expendable price point, and that solves the problem of network communications inside buildings, in tunnels, sewer systems and places where line of sight is denied. So we look at that robot platform as having many uses, both with first responders and with DOD.”

In the near term, robots will begin requiring less direct handling by warfighters to perform their missions in the field. “In the 18-month to three-year time frame, you’ll see an awful lot of things happening harnessing the work out of government laboratories like [the Army’s Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and the Army Research Laboratory] and out of companies like iRobot, which will really start to introduce much smarter robots,” Dyer said.

The next generation of robots will need less direct control from operators. EOD robots require precise and direct control, but “the infantry mission requires that you free the operator…because he's got other things to do and can't dedicate as much time to being kept down as was the case with EOD operators,” he said.

In the future, Dyer said he sees robots gaining greater mobility and being able to get into even more spaces where people can’t — and shouldn’t — go.

“We're working [on] robots that can change shape; that can use very new, very innovative methods of locomotion; change shape to travel under a door; to be made out of squishy materials rather than out of metals,” he said. “We're also working [on] the advanced levels simultaneous to localization and mapping.”

Using navigational technologies such as optic flow, which allows robots to visually navigate through confined spaces, and flash light detection and ranging, which laboratories are now testing, robots will be able to navigate and map spaces without direct operator control.

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