Robots: As Human Partners, Part 1

(helping to save military lives)

iRobot's PackBot on the front lines

Almost three years into the Iraq conflict and four into the Afghanistan war, the phrase "improvised explosive devices" (IEDs) has become one that is met with hesitation. This is a new style of combat that's still being studied, and in the mean time, a good scouting technology that can effectively scout a given area and not place troops at risk has yet to be developed.

Enter the PackBot, a fourty-four pound unit being developed by iRobot (makers of the popular Scooba and Roomba robotic floor cleaning devices) which may help save lives as these conflicts continue. The PackBot, which retails at approximately $100,000 per unit, is a squat, rectangular robot, complete with heavy treaded wheels on its right and left sides. These treads are complimented by movable "flipper" appendages that can be individually moved to provide additional traction.

The unit can grip the edges of a staircase it may be climbing or descending. An internal gyroscopic system reading pitch and roll coordinates shifts the unit's weight where it needs to be.

Controlled by a console stored in a rugged 30-pound metal case, operators swing open the case, screw in two antennas and begin to control the camera and sensor-laden PackBot via a radio or fiber optic connection. The software, powered by a BlueCat linux operating system, allows users access to the PackBot's sensor and tool arrays, which include systems for measuring voltages, currents, internal temperatures, GPS locations and overall positioning. The unit can also include an extendable arm, tactile claw to pick up and handle objects, up to eight cameras and chemical sensors that help to locate improvised explosive devices.

"They're fearless," said Joseph Dyer, executive vice president and general manager of iRobot's Government and Industrial Robotics division. Dyer then cited the idea of tactical speed with the PackBot. While the unit may not win the speed race at five to six miles per hour, it can easily enter into locations soldiers would approach with caution.

iRobot's PackBot on the front lines

In circumstances where it would be dangerous to blindly enter a building, a PackBot can be thrown through a window, unfold itself and be deployed as a remotely controlled scout. The PackBot, which can constrict into a 24 inch space, has been sent into operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with over 300 units in action and a current contract extending to provide 1,200 units more of the model. The unit was first put into use as a search tool after the September 11, 2001 attacks and became widely utilized as a search tool during the Afghanistan cave hunts for Taliban fighters.

Given certain situations, the presence of a robotic unit seemed more comforting than anything a human could offer. In one case with a despondent person holding himself hostage, the PackBot, which is also equipped with a Voice over Internet Protocol communication system that can both transmit and receive audio messages, became something the person felt comfortable speaking with. After a period of time, the person asked for the robot to bring him a telephone and later a cup of coffee, which had been drugged and rendered the subject unconscious to end the situation.

Training for the PackBot currently entails about 1.5 days worth of training before basic proficiency is reached. Within a few weeks, operators have typically figured out settings and maneuvers that work best with what they're trying to accomplish.

Video game generation seems to learn how to operate the robots quickly

In addition to bomb disposal and remote work, the PackBot can also be used as a scout unit. A PackBot, or several, can be sent into a hostile environment; such as, a building that might be used as a refuge for insurgency forces. The PackBot, using a laser scanner or other device, can create a three dimensional map of the building for later use. Multiple units, if sent traveling through sections, can divide the workload among themselves for a faster scan.

The PackBot, which is being developed by iRobot in conjunction with the military's DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) program, is part of a $50 million Future Combat System contract to develop a robot under 30 pounds for deployment. The ultimate mission of these machines is to save lives.

—Excerpts from an article by Chris Barylick, UPI Technology Correspondent

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