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Army recycles PackBots to sniff out chemicals

Older models of the iRobot military-grade inventions don't fade away. Instead, they get reassigned to a still-useful purpose as scouts for contaminated areas.

The U.S. military has been working on a new use for old PackBots that will save soldiers time and aggravation, though not replace them completely, when it comes to chemical warfare.

A CUGV PackBot at the 95th Chemical Company at Fort Richardson, Alaska. U.S. Army Alaska

With new Foster-Miller Talon and 510 PackBot models being introduced, the old PackBot models will be rotated out of use in combat.

The Department of Defense ordered that the older models be put to good use. Through a program towards that end, the 95th Chemical Company at Fort Richardson in Alaska has been testing out modded PackBots since 2005.

The new/old PackBot, called a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Unmanned Ground Vehicle or CUGV for short, will be ready for field use this fall, according to the U.S. Army.

It's been fitted with a lightweight chemical detector to sense nerve gas, among other things.

"The CUGV detects ammonia, chlorine, carbon monoxide, oxygen levels, lower explosive limits, volatile organic compounds, gamma radiation rate and dose rate, temperature, and humidity," Herschel J. Deaton, CBRN programs technical staff for Concurrent Technologies Corp. at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., said in an Army News Service story.

It's also fitted with a video camera for live feeds that can be taped by the person controlling the robot back at operations for analysis at a later time.

Soldiers from the 95th Chemical Company set up a robot control station.
Soldiers from the 95th Chemical Company set up a robot control station. U.S. Army Alaska

In the absence of a CUGV, a soldier has to wear a Level A airtight suit and self-contained breathing apparatus akin to scuba gear when going into a suspected contaminated zone. Because of the heat and the oxygen limitations in such a suit, he or she only had about 45 minutes to get to the site, inspect it, and get back to a safe area.

The iRobot PackBot can be sent in to a contamination zone for up to 4 hours if necessary, according to the Army report.

Unfortunately, the CUGV can not entirely replace the soldier. Since it cannot take a sample of water, dirt, or vegetation to be brought back to a lab, a human will still have to go in for that.

But the PackBot will still alleviate a lot of the time-consuming legwork leading up to that task by mapping out and identifying the contaminates in a given area, according to the Army report.

Knowing what kind of contaminate is in the area would also help keep soldiers from needless donning of the Level A suit.