iRobot readies shop vac, new military bot

Whether you have a dirty garage or explosives that need to be detonated, iRobot has the machine for you.

The company behind the Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner, next week plans to start selling a new robot designed for vacuuming workshops and garages.

The iRobot Dirt Dog drives and navigates on its own like Roomba, but it's been enhanced to suck up things like wood chips and metal shavings, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner said. The Dirt Dog, for instance, has counter-rotating bristle brushes that churn at 1,000 revolutions per minute, as well as a disposal bin that's 40 percent larger.

With the Dirt Dog, the company has pretty much covered the floor space in the typical home, she said. The Roomba cleans carpets; the Scooba cleans tile, wood and linoleum floors; and the Dirt Dog does the garages and basements.

Company sales, she added, have continued to climb. iRobot has shipped 2 million Roombas, the robot that went on sale in 2002.

"There is always initial skepticism. People ask, 'Does it work?'" she said. Still, consumer surveys show that most people detest vacuuming.

The Dirt Dog will cost $129.99 and go on sale Friday. Roombas start at $149, but remanufactured Roombas can be had for as little as $99. The Scooba goes for $349 and $299.

The company is also expanding the capabilities of its military robots. The U.S. Army to investigate caves occupied by the Taliban. The bots are now being used to find and explode improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in Iraq.

The PackBot is sent to investigate suspicious roadside packages. If video and other information gathered by the robot indicate that the package is a bomb, the PackBot will place plastic explosives around it to blow it up. Soldiers try to preserve the robot, but many have been blown up.

"Two years ago, they would have suited up a soldier to investigate an IED threat," Greiner said. "These robots have been credited with saving the life of dozens of soldiers."

Third parties are also using add-on modules. Boston University, for example, has developed a TNT sniffer and is working on an acoustic sensor that potentially could pinpoint the location of a sniper. In addition, a military contractor is looking at ways to attach biological and nuclear hazard detectors to a PackBot.

iRobot is also working on a new military robot, the Neo Mover, which will carry material and supplies for soldiers in battle.

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