IRobot Turns Packbot Into Roving Mapmaker

Military robotics powerhouse iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) said yesterday that it’s ready to sell a version of its Packbot robot equipped with laser detectors that will help soldiers build real-time maps of hazardous terrain or buildings without sending personnel into danger.

“Situational awareness” is one of the big buzz phrases in modern robotics. If it is to move safely through its environment, an autonomous or partially autonomous robot needs a detailed understanding of its surroundings. For example, Talos, the autonomous Land Rover entered by MIT in the recent DARPA Urban Challenge, bristles with laser, radar, and video sensors that give the vehicle a remarkably detailed 3-D picture of its surroundings at all times.

Mapping the WayBut the same information can be transmitted back to a robot’s tele-operators, who might like to explore a contested alleyway or building interior remotely before sending in soldiers. iRobot’s new “Packbot with Mapping Kit” features what the Burlington, MA-based company calls “ruggedized situational awareness”—a payload combining laser sensors and video cameras that the baby-stroller-sized, tank-treaded vehicle can take into such urban battlegrounds. The sensors gather information that’s then displayed for operators in the form of 2-D maps on a laptop computer (see photo).

“PackBot with Mapping Kit utilizes new technology that directly addresses the needs of modern warfighter and other first responders to safely gather crucial environmental intelligence without having to enter hazardous situations,” said Joe Dyer, president of iRobot Government & Industrial Robots division and a retired U.S. navy vice admiral, in the company’s official statement about the product release. “We foresee it becoming an invaluable addition to small unmanned ground vehicle operations that require fast and reliable navigation capabilities in rugged environments.”

The mapping-enabled Packbot is what iRobot calls “semi-autonomous,” meaning it’s under the control of an operator, but can also sense obstacles and change course to avoid them. “This advanced autonomy enables the operator to navigate faster and smarter through unknown environments, increasing the safety and tempo of operations in time-critical situations,” the company says.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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