iRobot's military bots get smarter and more agile (photos)
A look inside iRobot's workshop to build robots able to get home on their own, establish a mesh network, and pick up things without destroying them.
The latest addition to iRobot's military robot line is the 110 FirstLook, a throwable robot designed to take pictures of locations for a remote operator. It's equipped with four cameras (seen on the side behind the flipper) and uses Wi-Fi to communicate back to a controller. It can also climb stairs using its flippers, although that's not its primary use. iRobot recently shipped the first 100 units to the U.S. military.
One of the challenges of robotic arms is that they aren't very precise and can damage the objects they are handling. This is an inflatable arm developed by iRobot's research organization that's designed for handling objects, such as door knobs. Being inflatable means it can conform to the shape of an object to get a better grip.
This robot, also out of iRobot's research labs, uses a suspension system and specialized caterpillar tracks to better handle bumpy terrain. The smoother operation makes it easier for remote control and allows it to move more quickly.
One of the biggest challenges for the first military robots made by iRobot was making controls that didn't require a lot of training. The company has settled on using off-the-shelf gaming controllers connected to a ruggedized laptop PC.
iRobot's larger PackBot robots have an arm that can be used for multiple purposes, including surveillance via a built-in camera. The company has been developing smaller and lighter robots to make them more portable. This machine and its control machines fits into a single backpack.
Here's a look at the software used by the operator to control a PackBot or other military robots from iRobot. The company has designed a number of preset poses into the software to make it easier for the operator, who can also create custom poses.
iRobot's biggest and most powerful military robot is the Warrior. Able to pick up 220 pounds, it can take on tasks that require more lifting and pulling strength. Early versions of these Warrior robots, equipped with radioactivity meters and industrial vacuums, were sent to Japan to help clean up the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Earlier this year, a nuclear power plant operator purchased two. The optic fiber spool seen on the right is an alternative to connecting over a wireless network.