Defense Media Network

iRobot Expands and Enhances Robotic Systems

The recent 2012 Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference and Exhibition, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association, provided a venue for multiple product manufacturers to highlight their latest activities in the ground robotics arena. Among the companies in the spotlight was iRobot, whose executives used the occasion to brief attendees on the expansion and enhancement of that company’s robotic systems.

According to Tim Trainer, interim general manager of iRobot’s Military Robots business unit, the company’s military product line began with the PackBot® 510 in the 2001-2002 time frame and has now grown to a total of more than 4,500 tactical unmanned ground vehicles and underwater robots delivered worldwide to date (In 2008, iRobot acquired Netkon Research, LLC, in North Carolina, creating a maritime division).

iRobot 110 FirstLook

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) has ordered more than 100 of iRobot’s FirstLook throwable robots for evaluation. Photo courtesy of iRobot

“[The PackBot] has really evolved as we have added additional payloads, additional capabilities, additional autonomy – and really matured that product through its life cycle to the point now where we refer to it as the multimission PackBot with true ‘plug and play’ and autonomous capabilities,” he said. “And from that the SUGV [Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle] family – the XM1216, which really grew out of the FCS [Future Combat Systems] program and subsequently the BCTM [Brigade Combat Team Modernization] program and now into a program of its own as an independent program [310 SUGV] moving forward as a program of record.

We have benefited greatly from that externally funded R&D program and really raised the game in a lot of capabilities that we have across the company – our technical capabilities; our research and development capabilities; and even our science and technology capabilities – bringing that program to where it is right now and where it will go to in the future.”

Trainer added that government investments combined with some internal investments also produced new systems like FirstLook™, a “throwable robot” design that grew out of a “one pound DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] project” that focused on a self-healing mesh network.

“We were able to use some of that technology, grow it from a 1 pound to a 5 pound size, and we have just delivered 105 units for operational assessment later this spring,” he said.

The order for the FirstLook systems, which are 5 pounds and measure 10 inches long, 9 inches wide, and 4 inches tall, was funded by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). According to the company, FirstLook “is robust enough to survive 15-foot drops, overcomes obstacles as high as seven inches and automatically self-rights when flipped over. Future capabilities include two-way audio communication and digital mesh networking, which will allow multiple robots to relay radio communications over greater distances.”

At the largest end of the size spectrum, Trainer pointed to the company’s new 710 Warrior®, a 500-pound robot with 220-pound arm lift.

“We’ve seen that go forward, primarily into the industrial market and understanding how that fits into the military business,” he said.

In the underwater market, the company’s 1KA Seaglider™ provides long-duration capabilities of up to nine months.

“Again, it’s an evolution of technology,” he noted. “We have licensed that technology out of the University of Washington and we have enhanced that technology.”

Reflecting on future opportunities, Trainer offered, “In the near term, we have FirstLook and Warrior, our two new products that came out this year and last year. Going forward we are focused on our Aware 2® software [iRobot Aware 2.0 Robot Intelligence Software] as the base for autonomy, modular capability, and multimission capability. I think the platforms’ sizes and weights are pretty much set, so we will work to improve reliability, improve the sensor suites that are on those, and relieve the 1-to-1 tele-operation that the warfighter has out there to allow them to concentrate more on their mission and let the robot offload some of those mission requirements without the need for direct driver control.”

In addition to those future enhancements, iRobot provided a conference demonstration of a new “User Assist Package” that will soon be installed on existing 510 PackBots to provide increased operator situational awareness; retro-traversing in event of communications loss; and self-righting behaviors in event of turn-over.


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...