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You might be familiar with iRobot for its household products, the Roomba vacuum and the Scooba floor scrubber. But the company also purveys something a bit more, well, badass. Its Packbot is a military robot that has been on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan, the rocky rubble of the World Trade Center and the radioactive turf of Japan’s nuclear reactors.
Mashable spoke with Tim Trainer, VP of operations for iRobot’s Government and Industrial Robots division, about the 510 Packbot, its capabilities, how it’s controlled and what’s next.
iRobot was founded in 1990 by MIT roboticists to develop machines to improve daily life. At one point, the government requested whitepapers from the company for a reliable robot with the maneuverability to climb stairs. In 1997, the government came back and approved iRobot’s design, asking to see a developed prototype. What resulted was the precursor to the iRobot, which has been built upon over the years to become more rugged and durable. While “famous” robots like Rosey Jetson and R2-D2 have humanoid characteristics, iRobot chose function over form, shaping their robots to fit the tasks they’re created to do.EOD — explosive ordnance disposal. It enters dangerous areas and disarms bombs so that human troops don’t have to. The robot is operated with a 4.9 or 2.4 GHz radio that has a 15″ operator control unit (OCU), which is essentially a laptop with a game-style controller that’s used to manipulate and maneuver the robot and to gain “situational awareness” from the robot’s 3-D imagery, taken with 312x zoom cameras that work in all levels of lighting.
The Packbot can be equipped with sensors for various scents and sounds so that it can offer the operator and his squadron important information in the face of chemical warfare, hazardous materials and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at checkpoint inspections and other dangerous situations. The Packbot’s “manipulators” — its arm-like appendages — enable it to lift 30-pound loads and place bomb disruptors precisely as it roams around at six or seven miles per hour. Depending on what sensor kits are installed on the Packbot, it costs around $100,000 to produce one robot.
Two recently added features are retrotraverse and self-righting. If a Packbot loses communication with the operator, it will automatically retrace its steps to the last place where it had communication, hence “retrotraverse.” And in a situation where a Packbot is flipped in rough terrain, the robot is self-righting and can flip itself, eliminating the need for a human to suit up and enter a dangerous area. Aware 2 is being further developed to increase a Packbot’s autonomous capabilities, says Trainer.
All military robots undergo thorough testing with the government to make sure the machine is suitable for use. Future iterations of the Packbot will allow the information on the OCU to be transmitted to a command center; currently only the operator can see what the Packbot is encountering.
Packbot in Action
The Packbot’s first real-world deployment was actually in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when they were used to test the structural integrity of Ground Zero before first responders went in to search for people.While the Packbot can be implemented in myriad situations, it’s been most useful for IED defeat; more than 4,000 Packbots have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Packbots have uncovered numerous IEDs, and each instance has saved the lives of several troops. One such Packbot, “Scooby Doo” (above), is preserved in the iRobot headquarters. Its operator had etched on the side of the robot how many IEDs it had conquered: 19.
Trainer says it hard to quantify how many lives have been saved by Packbots, but 3,000 is a good guess. “It's a hard number to validate, but a significant amount of life has been saved with robots, hence the growth” he says.
Packbots have found plenty of work beyond the borders of the Middle East, too. They’ve been sold throughout the U.S. and worldwide to police departments for hostage and SWAT situations and EOD missions.
Over the past six months, two Packbots and two Warriors have been roaming around Fukushima in the aftermath of the tsunami. “Packbots were the first robots to enter reactors 1, 2 and 3, outfitted with HazMat sensors,” says Trainer. “They’re able to map out the high radiation areas, the low radiation areas and validate the structural integrity of the coolant systems before they were re-energized.”
Packbot’s sibling, the Warrior, has also been used in reactor facilities in Japan. By affixing an industrial vacuum to the warrior, the Warrior was able to reduce radioactive debris by 20%. The deployment in Fukushima was iRobot’s first foray into high radiation environments, but the robots have been holding up for more than six months
The iRobot is a feat of engineering and technology, but iRobot’s prowess isn’t limited to military and industrial goods. The company also purveys home robots, like the Roomba and Scooba cleaners.
“Both [divisions] are important from a business perspective and they give us a nice mix of products,” says Trainer. “Sometimes the commercial market is up, sometimes the government market is up, so it gives us some diversification.”
There’s actually a symbiosis between military and commercial robots — parts of the Packbots may lend themselves to mass-production in the home market at a lower cost. And then there’s the aspect of revenue — profits from the successful commercial goods can help finance some of the more expensive systems — Trainer says the revenue is roughly 45% from military robots and 55% from commercial ones.
Last year, the company generated more than $400 million in revenue and had a team of 600. The military robot business is expected to grow from $5.8 billion last year to $8 billion in 2016, in part because the U.S. Department of Defense wants to replace one-third of its forces with robots by 2015. Since August, iRobot has announced a $21 million order from the U.S. Navy, a five-year, $60 million contract with the U.S. Army’s Robotic Systems Joint Program Office and an $11 million order from U.S. Army Contracting Command.
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