Thursday, October 13, 2005

iRobot's Battlefield Robots

iRobot, the company best known for its robotic vacuum cleaner, Roomba, has another successful line of robotic products. Our military is using iRobot's PackBots in Afghanistan and Iraq today for operating in dangerous combat areas and disarming bombs. The company is now working on equipping its PackBots with a sniper detection system that can pinpoint the source of sniper fire in seconds.

For the history of iRobot's PackBot robots click here.

"The PackBot was first called to action in Afghanistan. The Army Vice Chief of Staff, General Keane, saw pictures of soldiers clearing caves which grappling hooks. He knew that the military had invested heavily in robotic equipment and did not see why the soldiers were still using techniques used in WWII. Col Jette started the Rapid Equipping Force, and a team that included the PackBot AND the PackBot Program Manager were deployed to Bagram Air Base in the summer of 2002. We were able to gather user feedback and change the robot and controller software to reflect input from the preceding missions, before the mission the next day. This gave the soldier direct input into the design The 82nd Airborne first adopted the PackBot's revolutionary life-saving functions, saying 'Send the robot in first.' These robots are still in theatre and operational today.

"Operation Iraqi Freedom followed soon after, and again PackBot units were called into action. Among its missions were searching the tunnels under the Baghdad airport, remotely looking for enemy soldiers thought to be hiding in the agricultural center building, and remotely examining equipment left on an airfield that was potentially booby trapped."

For a report on PackBot's new sniper detection system click here.

" [It] aims to protect soldiers in places like Iraq by quickly locating snipers so they can either steer clear or fire back. 'These systems are primarily made for gathering and understanding the nature of the threat,' said Thoren, director of Project REDOWL, or Robot Enhanced Detection Outpost with Lasers. But the mobile robot's use of infrared light and lasers to fix on a target also raises the possibility that robots may eventually be armed to use weapons themselves, either autonomously or under human control."

-- Shrikant Rangnekar

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