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Talk: iRobot

scoutChris Jones from iRobot gave a talk at SRI. He focused mostly on iRobot's government/industrial robots (the ones with big treads that you can throw through a window) rather than the delicate Roomba and Scooba home appliance robots (FYI: the Scooba was designed to cleanup dried peanut butter from your kitchen floor in one pass).

The main line of iRobot's government/industrial robots is the packbot. I saw one of these at Robonexus awhile back -- they had it continuosly going up a staircase and dropping several feet to the ground. These things are tough (rated to 400Gs) and can handle all sorts of terrain with their tread and flipper design. The idea is that a soldier would throw this robot (e.g. through a window, around a corner, etc...) and then use a laptop to guide the robot around and get back video. You can outfit the packbot with an arm that can hold a camera or 'disruptor' for destroying explosive devices. They've even put a parachute and fan on a packbot to make it fly. A packbot is rugged enough that when it reaches the deployment zone it can just cut its parachute in order to land, or, in the case of one video he showed us, when the packbot gets piloted into a tree.


Some tidbits from the talk:

  • Your home is a dangerous place: the algorithm that the Roomba uses to figure out where to clean is adapted from a minefield coverage algorithm.
  • Leave no robot behind: On April 8, 2004, Packbot 129 became the first packbot to be 'killed in action.' US soldiers managed to retrieve all of its parts and it is now framed for display.
  • Lest they take over: The military doesn't like hearing about robot 'autonomy,' so iRobot markets their robots to the military as being like remote control cars. Now that the military has been using them in combat operations, they are now asking for more autonomous features like "come home so we can get the hell outta here."

Other Packbot stuff:

  • Griffon Flying Packbot: They outfitted a packbot with a fan and parachute so that it can paraglide.
  • Redowl: Pinpoints the source of gunfire to help you find snipers. In the demo video the packbot was able to find the source before the puff of smoke had dissipated (In collaboration with BU Photonics)
  • Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV): 80% of packbot's size for more portability.
  • Wayfarer: urban reconnaisance robot. Designed to map an unknown area. The plan is to make it payload-deployable, i.e. just plug in a module to an existing packbot and it works.
  • New Explosive Ordinance Suite (NEO): At 200lbs, it's can go whereever a soldier can go and even carry their stuff. It has active center of gravity shifting to help it navigate changing terrain (e.g. staircases).
  • John Deere R-Gator: irobot john deere r-gator
  • Sentinel: software and user-interface research into how a single person can coordinate and control multiple robots.
  • FIDO: a chemical sensing device developed at MIT that can be attached to a packbot arm to sniff out explosives.
  • CHARS (Chemical/Radiological Sensor)

The packbot platform uses multiple identical PC-104-based Robot Control Units (RCUs). The RCUs figure out what their job is based on where they are plugged in.

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