WORLDBEAT - Robots aren't just for housecleaning anymore

Some people may think of robots as friendly human-shaped things that help with the housework or that will in the future pilot spaceships.

Engineers at iRobot certainly see house-cleaning as a legitimate use of robots, although the company's popular Roomba Intelligent Floorvac vacuum-cleaning robot is disc shaped, not human shaped. Although the 15-year-old iRobot has even collaborated with toy-maker Hasbro on a life-like doll, military robots have long been a major focus of the Burlington, Massachusetts, company.

iRobot's military robots don't have a lot in common with the walking, talking robots of science fiction movies. They're shaped more like mini tanks or golf carts than like humans, designed more for functionality than for looking good on the big screen. iRobot's PackBots, for instance, have tracked wheels to navigate rough terrain and weigh about 40 pounds (18.1 kilograms).

PackBots, in various configurations have been used by the U.S. military to scout into caves or battle areas, conduct roving surveillance and to even disarm roadside bombs. The PackBot can be thrown into a building through a window, climb stairs, or drop 20 feet (6.1 meters) and still function, according to iRobot. More than 100 of the versatile robots have been deployed by the U.S. military in Iraq, said Tom Ryden, director of sales and marketing for iRobot's Government & Industrial Robotics division.

In March, iRobot announced it signed a US$18 million contract with the U.S. Navy's Naval Sea Systems Command to supply the military with multiple explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) versions of the PackBot. The PackBot EOD uses a robotic arm mounted on the PackBot's tank-like base to disable roadside bombs. PackBot operators use remote-control devices to move the arm and the robot itself from a safe distance away.

"Some of the soldiers become very attached to them, because they know that (the PackBots) are going down there instead of having to put on a bomb suit and go down there themselves," Ryden said.

If you think a remote controlled robot might be useful for walking the dog, you might have to wait a few years for the PackBot. Depending on the configuration, one PackBot runs between US$50,000 and US$100,000, Ryden noted

"This is not something the average consumer would have around the house," he added.

Plenty of consumers own iRobot Roombas, however. With all models costing less than US$300, the Roomba uses sensors to vacuum rooms without a human directly involved. The Roomba was introduced in September 2002, and in October 2004, iRobot announced it had sold 1 million Roombas.

The company is using lessons from Roomba to focus on cutting costs in its military robots, said Joe Dyer, executive vice president and general manager of iRobot's Government and Industrial Robotics division. "The consumer guys, when they're willing to sell a product for a couple of hundred bucks, they'll kill for a nickel," said Dyer, a retired Navy vice admiral. "We're taking the lessons in consumer in regard to cost consciousness and price control and feeding those lessons back to the defense side."

Using the lessons learned in its consumer division to drive down costs and using the lessons in its government division to drive up performance, Dyer believes multipurpose robots will soon be available to a wider group of people than soldiers. "We think it is going to be available to people who don't have a lot of money to spend," Dyer added.

IRobot is also working with tractor maker John Deere & Co. to build unmanned, Jeep-shaped vehicles. The golf-cart-sized R-Gator Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle can be programmed to cart supplies through dangerous areas and patrol perimeters. The vehicle has sensors to avoid obstacles on its route and has mounted cameras to perform surveillance. The first eight prototypes are due to be finished in midyear.

In addition to the Navy contract, iRobot in April 2004 signed a US$32 million contract to develop a next-generation small unmanned ground vehicle for the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems program. The contract has since increased to US$37.3 million [m], Dyer said, and the Army contract will develop unmanned vehicles that offer more functionality than the R-Gator does.

"We'll look back on (the R-Gator) as the Model A of intelligent vehicles," Dyer said.

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