The devices are already saving lives on front lines, says the Heritage Foundation panel on the future of robotics.
WASHINGTONCalling robots a "disruptive technology," iRobot Chairman and Founder Helen Greiner said that robots made by her company have already saved the lives of dozens of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
She said that robotics will be as important in some ways as the invention of fire, and that when used in the real world, "Its the difference between being eaten and having a barbecue."
Speaking at a panel sponsored by the Heritage Foundation at the organizations headquarters here, Greiner said that today troops are using robots for everything from carrying heavy loads to taking out IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the form of roadside bombs.
She said that one iRobot product, the Packbot, is extremely popular with troops, who are constantly thinking up new ways to use the device.
Griener said that iRobot has already sold over 500 Packbots to the military, in addition to the 2-million-plus Roombas that the company sells to consumers for floor cleaning.
Greiner said that iRobot is already working on a successor to the Packbot that would be smaller and lighter, and able to handle a wider selection of tasks.
"Well see it in more tactical situations," she said. "As the threat changes, we change the payload."
Greiner said that robots are already being designed to help find terrorists, search shipping for threats and to support troops in urban settings.
"You can send in a robot where you used to send in a soldier," she said.
Greiner said that iRobot is working with tractor-maker John Deere to make larger robots. She said that one such robot is already deployed at a U.S. Navy weapons compound where it can patrol on its own.
MITs John Leonard said that the biggest challenge being faced by his researchers is in recognizing objects and in teaching robots to recognize where they are, even when theyre inside a building or tunnel where GPS doesnt reach.
One reason for this is that MIT is working on research into autonomous undersea vehicles for the U.S. Navy. He said that a primary task for his robotic research was to teach robots to look for mines.
Leonard said that his research has led him into at least one unexpected direction.
Next Page: Row, row, row your bot.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.