Like the prologue of any robo-apocalypse movie where the machines rise up to destroy us, most of the robots we hear about do things we could do, but don’t want to. They mop our floors. They put together cars. They die for us.
When you hear “iRobot”, you probably think of squat, circular roboslaves doomed to a life of sucking up the detritus at our feet, endlessly whirring and crashing into walls and yelping pets. Or maybe Asimov stories that became bad Will Smith movies. But iRobot makes robots that save peoples’ lives every day. When there’s a bomb threat in the US, or when an IED is discovered in Afghanistan, these are the robots that go in and get their hands (clamps?) dirty. Or blown off.
The Packbot and 310 SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle) both star in my favourite thing on TV: Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan. You see them in almost every episode. They go down range and do something that the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit would have had to risk their lives for. Occasionally, they don’t come back.
You can wear the SUGV on your back, if you’d like. The Packbot and SUGV both have four cameras on them that can be used to investigate an IED, along with grippers that can plant a C4 charge nearby, to facilitate a controlled detonation. They can be operated from just under a kilometre away (depending on the terrain), and they are about to get even more super-powered.
A forthcoming software update will give the robots the capability to automatically right themselves should they accidentally turn over and it will give them the ability to retrace their steps. In other words, should they be going down range and suddenly lose radio communication, the robot will retrace its steps back (following a known, safe path) until it has good comms again. This will prevent EOD techs from having to step into harm’s way to retrieve it.
The robot whose arm will be creeping toward your neck in your nightmares is the 710 Warrior. Weighing 158kg, capable of going over rough terrain and stairs, and of lifting 100kg with its extremely dexterous gripper, the Warrior could drag an injured person out of a dangerous situation. iRobot shipped a few of these to Japan to help at the debilitated Fukushima plant, where it got to do fun tasks like monitor radiation levels and vacuum up radioactive debris. It has an extremely flexible payload platform, making it good for many applications, including firing off a string of anti-IED explosives. The Warrior has been under development for a while, but is scheduled to be released this month.
Keeping us humans safe in a totally different way is the Seaglider. Think of Seaglider as a deep-sea science-bot. They can monitor ocean waters for levels of radiation, pollution, or really anything else. What’s remarkable about them, though, is that they can be deployed autonomously for up to nine months at a time, travelling great distances and plunging to depths of 1000m. The way it does all of this is via its unique buoyancy-driven propulsion system. It alternates between making itself heavier than water and lighter than water in order to dive and rise at 45-degree angles, which allows it to travel using very little energy. Whenever it surfaces it can beam the data back to shore via satellite. Don’t you feel better about eating tuna now that there may be a Seaglider out there patrolling for mercury and radioactivity? (it could happen).
The irony is that because these robots are expendable, they’ve now become indispensable. They throw themselves on IEDs, slurp up radioactive waste caused by a natural disaster, spot snipers before they spot soldiers. And that’s today. One can only imagine what they’ll be doing tomorrow. Hopefully it’ll still be on our behalf.
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.