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iRobot to develop 'ChemBot' for military

PackBot maker is awarded multiyear, million-dollar plus project from DARPA to develop shape-shifting flexible robot.

iRobot has secured a multimillion-dollar R&D contract for a new type of soft, flexible robot for the military, the company announced Tuesday.

The "ChemBot" project was awarded to iRobot from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Army Research Office.

iRobot did not release any preliminary diagrams or details on what the ChemBot might look like. But some ideas on what a ChemBot might be like can be gleaned from a request for proposals DARPA put out in March 2007. The robot DARPA wants to see must be a soft, flexible, mobile robot that can squeeze into hard-to-reach places. The goal is to make a robot that would be "soft enough to squeeze or traverse through small openings, yet large enough to carry an operationally meaningful payload," according to DARPA's request. The robot will also need to change in size and shape to fit a given situation's needs.

The ChemBot project led by iRobot will include team members from iRobot, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with expertise in chemistry and material science, as well as those versed in the expected actuator, electronics, sensor, and computer technologies.

The ChemBot will be used for reconnaissance and search-and-rescue type missions, according to iRobot.

Small and nimble seems to be the latest robo-interest.

SRI International released footage of its sticky wall-climbing robots in April. BAE Systems announced in early May it secured a $38 million contract with the U.S. military for its spider-like intelligence-gathering robots. Finally, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle announced earlier this month that they are developing "robofish" for gathering information at sea and that the military is interested in a school of its own.