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iRobot readies for war--and the household

Whether mopping up a battlefield or a living room floor, robots will get the job done, the company says.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Robot specialist iRobot is teaming with John Deere to go to war.

The Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot will develop a robot vehicle for combat with the tractor manufacturer, said CEO Colin Angle in an interview at RoboNexus International, a robot conference that took place here last week. The vehicle will be based on Deere's M Gator, which is currently employed by the military, but it will be able to drive and guide itself after some human guidance.

Additionally, iRobot, the manufacturer of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, will come out with another line of robotic home appliances next year, he said.

After years of unfulfilled promise, the market for robots appears to be gaining steam, thanks to technological advancements and improved marketing.

iRobot has sold 1 million Roombas in about two years. Hospitals have begun to experiment with using robots to dispense medicines, and other institutions are looking at using robots that can venture into hazardous environments such as collapsed mine shafts to collect data or clean up toxic messes.

The military is buying them, too. The United States has deployed more than 50 PackBots--the military robot developed by iRobot--in Iraq. Others were sent to explore caves in Afghanistan.

The company's sales began to ramp up rapidly in the fourth quarter last year, certainly a welcome change. Although the privately held company has the profile of a start-up, it's 14 years old.

The vehicle from John Deere and iRobot is about 50 percent larger than a golf cart, but heavily armored. Soldiers will use it largely to carry equipment, mostly over the same paths again and again. It will be semiautonomous, but a human has to drive the first time. On that trip, the vehicle memorizes the route, and it can conduct itself after that. Localized navigation systems will allow it to get around rocks and other obstacles that block the familiar path, he said.

"It can re-supply in difficult terrain," he said. "The sentries can go ahead, and it will carry the backpacks."

Test vehicles, which will have a top speed near 20 mph, will be delivered to the military in 2006. It will cost around $150,000 to $200,000.

Along with the John Deere vehicle, iRobot will begin to expand the PackBot line. In Afghanistan, soldiers had to carry the 40-pound vehicle, which was mostly used to conduct reconnaissance missions. (The vehicle features a camera on an arm.) As a result, those in the field there have requested a lighter model.

To hammer home the point, military designers made one of iRobot's engineers jog 5 miles with one of the units strapped to his back, Angle said.

In Iraq, the military says, it wants a faster model with a reticulating arm that can pick things up. To satisfy this demand, a 140-pound version with lots of armor is being developed.

Angle would not disclose much about what the new line of household robot appliances coming next year will do, but he did indicate they would be used for cleaning. Robots that can use water to clean are still in the works, as are robots that can fold clothes. The device isn't planned to be a lawnmower, and Angle did not say whether it would be a robotic leaf sweeper, a potential twist on the Roomba design.

Eventually, the company will start to design robots to help the elderly at home.

"We will make it easier to live in your house," Angle said.