Geek Out

The US Army's Robot Eyes

If something terrible happens at your job, you might file a report about it and your boss will follow up on it. If something terrible happens at a bomb tech’s job, they might get exploded. A tragedy if it’s a human being. But if it’s a robot? A small lump sum out of the defence budget.

You’re on an elite US Navy Explosive Ordinance Device (EOD) team, somewhere in the Afghanistan. You can’t tell your family where exactly — that’s classified. Last week the Taliban took over a small building that had been used by the ANP (Afghani National Police) as a base, but it seems that they have now abandoned it. The ANP wants to use it again, but you’ve got to make sure there are no IEDs or boobytraps. It’s now dark, and your truck is a few hundred yards from the building. It’s time to send in the bots.

First you need to know if the road leading up to the building and the area around it is clear of IEDs. It’s dark outside, so you’re going to need something with keen eyes. Like in iRobot’s XM1216 SUGV. It’s the same platform as the 310 SUGV (which I got to drive), but the payload is different. The XM1216 swaps out its arm for a whole bunch of unblinking eyeballs. Its main camera is a Sony 980, which has a resolution of 640×480 and a 26x optical zoom. It’s also fitted with a thermal camera for super clear vision through darkness or smoke and it’s got a laser range-finder, so you know exactly how far away an object of interest is. Carefully manoeuvring the bot around the building with your Xbox controller, you decide that the perimeter is safe.

You approach the building with caution, but it’s definitely not safe enough to go inside. There could be a pressure-plate under a floorboard, or perhaps a Taliban soldier is still lurking in there. So out of your backpack you pull your 110 FirstLook — the ThrowBot. You throw this little guy through a high window, and it survives the 5m drop, no problem. It’s got a camera and two-way audio communications, so you can get eyes on the ground and you can talk with anybody you happen to run into without putting a person in harm’s way. The little guy begins his miraculous (if slow) journey up a flight of stairs. KA-BOOM.

The ThrowBot accidentally tripped a wire that was linked to a network of bombs. The entire building has collapsed into a pile of rubble. One of your main duties is to see if there is any evidence (or bodies) buried under there. In the future, you’ll be able to use Jambots. Jambots enjoyed a little bit of internet fame when this video made by IEEE Spectrum went viral on YouTube. They are composed of several panels that are filled with a particulate-like beaded glass or sand. When air is sucked out of a panel, it becomes very rigid, and when it’s pumped in, it becomes big and soft.

Doing this in a controlled series is how locomotion is achieved, and it enables the Jambot to fit through tiny cracks in the rubble where a normal robot couldn’t go. For now they must be connected to a network of hoses in order to pump the air in and out, but down the road iRobot hopes to develop a small, integrated pump-system, that would untether this strange little thing. The Jambots could incorporate small cameras and microphones, making them awesome for a reconnaissance situation just like this one. Unfortunately, they’re just at an early prototype stage right now, so for today, your mission is over.

As you head back to base in your armoured vehicle, maybe you reflect on how glad you are for these robots. The thought of someone on your team getting their head shot off trying to look over a wall, or blown up outright because they had to put feet on the ground in a dangerous situation is the ultimate nightmare. Now, if iRobot could just create a fembot that seduced the enemy, maybe all of our troops could come home.

Huge thanks go out to Tim Trainer, Charlie Vaida, Paul Smith, and Dave Whiting from iRobot, and to Dave Welch from G4 who works on Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan.

The Bots of War is a multi-day series on iRobot’s lesser-known and more incredible little machines that defuse bombs, plant C4 and wage all-out war on our behalf.

Video: Jeremiah Hair and Woody Allen Jang.