Army Enlists More Help from Tiny Robots

By Eric Beidel
Soldiers in Afghanistan want their own personal robots to scan the insides of buildings and find homemade bombs.

The Army is granting those wishes.

The U.S. military paid $5.8 million for 385 micro-robots from Recon Robotics this summer, and the Army immediately followed that up with an order for 315 more. The devices are deployed at the fire team level, with each four- or six-member unit sharing a robot.

The company’s Recon Scout XT weighs 1.3 pounds and can be tossed up to 120 feet, hence why they are sometimes called “throwbots.” They can be controlled by a single button to help map and clear compounds, as well as to identify the location of improvised explosive devices, enemy fighters, friendly forces and local residents.

Up to three robots can be used simultaneously at the same location. They can traverse a variety of terrains including rocks, sand and cluttered interiors. They can climb over door thresholds and other objects and come equipped with an infrared optical system that automatically turns on when light is minimal.

The XT can be deployed in about five seconds. In a training video, a soldier pulls an activation pin on the robot and tosses it through the basement window of a building. The robot bounces on the concrete floor and steadies itself as the soldier begins to move it with a joystick from the outside. Other demonstrations show the device being thrown up on a roof and down a trapdoor, allowing troops to watch armed enemy fighters before entering a building or being seen.

The recent orders represent the emphasis being placed on micro-robots, says Ernest Langdon, director of military programs at Recon Robotics, a firm created in 2006 to commercialize technology developed at a University of Minnesota laboratory with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“The era of the personal robot has arrived for U.S. troops,” Langdon says.

The majority of ground robots deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan weigh 40 pounds or more and are typically used at the company level. But the U.S. military and its allies are turning to smaller machines, and there are now 2,000 Recon Scout robots deployed around the world.

“These robots provide immediate visual reconnaissance that saves lives, but they do so without substantially increasing the carry burden of our dismounted fire teams,” Langdon says.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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