WASHINGTON—Calling 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.
Row, Row, Row Your
“We have taken off the shelf kayaks for 500 dollars from LL Bean and turned them into robots,” Leonard said. “We now have about 12 kayaks.”
Leonard said that MIT had been testing the kayak-bots on a lake in Maine until the neighbors noticed the fleet of autonomous kayaks operating by themselves.
“They called the local news hotline,” he said. MIT has since moved the kayaks to the Charles River near the school.
The research then led to a new use. “Were developing autonomous rescue kayaks,” Leonard said.
He said that these kayaks could also be used to provide communications in flooded areas. “We already have the technology to do this,” he said.
NASAs Vladimir Lumelsky said that the space agency was researching ways to use robots in space, but was finding it a very difficult problem.
He said that plans to use robots to repair the Hubble Space Telescope had to be scrapped because NASA couldnt figure out how to make it work at an affordable price.
Lumelsky said that while NASA was making great progress on manipulator arms, the problem was really sensors.
There werent enough sensors available to provide adequate input to human operators, and the agency wasnt ready to let autonomous robots loose near people.
Closing out the panel was Stephen Welby, director of DARPAs Tactical Technology Office, the organization thats supporting much of todays robotics research.
He disagreed with Lumelsky that robotics was too hard to accomplish, saying that his agency had already funded and fielded a large number of successful robotics projects.
He disclosed, for example, that the third prototype of the GlobalHawk unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle was pressed into service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the time the agency got it back, it had racked up more hours aloft than any other aircraft in the Air Forces inventory.
“It can do things people cant do,” Welby said, “like staying at altitude for 35 hours straight.”
Welby also noted that his agency is making great strides in robotics by offering prizes to companies that can accomplish a task for the agency.
Most recently competitors were asked to design a robot that could make its way through the Nevada dessert entirely on its own.
The first time the contest was run, no robot succeeded, but in the contest last year, five vehicles made the whole trip.
Next, Welby said, comes the tough test. DARPA will offer a prize for a robotic vehicle that can operate in traffic.
That contest will take place in November 2007. For that task, some improvements are vital. Welby said that sensors are a key to success, another is learning.
“They must be able to learn from the environment,” he said. But he noted that robotics research is only at the very beginning. “Were at the Wright Brothers stage of robotics,” Welby said.