Most people who know iRobot know its household products, the most famous being the Roomba floor-cleaning machine. But if you're in the defense sector, you know the Bedford, Mass.-based robot maker as well for its PackBot--the smaller of the two machines here. PackBots have served for years now in Iraq, helping soldiers to find and safely neutralize or destroy roadside bombs.
Standing behind the PackBot in a demo room at iRobot's headquarters is a newer design from the company, the Warrior, which is now going into beta testing and being tried out in combat exercises. The Warrior is significantly heavier: 250-300 pounds, compared with 50-60 for the PackBot.
This side view of the Warrior provides a good look at its tracks, which can also lie flat like those of the PackBot behind it. The Warrior can drive at 10 miles per hour, compared with about 6 mph for the PackBot.
iRobot CEO Colin Angle describes the Warrior with unabashed enthusiasm: "That robot is going to change the world, and change the perception of what practical robots are all about. We're pretty passionate about that."
Correction, April 17 8:05 a.m.This caption initially misstated Warrior's speed.
Well over 2,000 PackBots have been sold worldwide--small potatoes, still, against better than 3 million for the Roomba.
There's also a smaller, lighter variation on the PackBot called the SUGV (small unmanned ground vehicle), which was developed in conjunction with the U.S. Army's emerging Future Combat Systems program--and which may well get an expanded role with the Army even as many pieces of FCS look vulnerable to cost-cutting in the Pentagon's proposed defense budget.
CEO Colin Angle says that most robotic tasks "are best tackled by designs that are not constrained by trying to look like a person." But that doesn't mean iRobot hasn't experimented with a human look and feel, as with Bit, from 1997.