IRobot Asked to Speed Delivery of “Son of Packbot” Prototypes

All the fuss over iRobot’s Packbot military robot over the past year, including the company’s successful patent-infringement and misappropriation-of-trade-secrets actions against Packbot-clone-maker Robotic FX, may have left you with the impression that the Packbot is iRobot’s key product for the defense community. In fact, the U.S. Army is just as excited, if not more enthused, about the Packbot’s little brother, called SUGV (for Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle).

As part of its Future Combat Systems program, the Army has a $51 million contract with iRobot to develop the robot, with field delivery originally expected around 2012. But SUGV testing has been going so well, according to various defense publications, that the Army has reportedly been considering accelerating the program, in the hope of getting the 30-pound, ruggedized, semi-autonomous, camera-wielding, backpackable robot into the field by 2010.

And now that’s official. IRobot announced yesterday that the Army has accelerated its testing schedule and wants the company to deliver 25 SUGV test units by April, with evaluation to begin the following month. Lighter, more agile, and more maneuverable than the Packbot, SUGV has proved popular among soldiers testing prototypes because it can venture into tight or dark spaces to search for explosives, among other talents.

IRobot said it expects the Army to decide on whether to authorize large-scale production of the SUGV by September.

“We continue to receive a tremendous amount of positive feedback from soldiers in theater that iRobot PackBot is an essential tool for ensuring mission readiness and improving situational awareness to keep soldiers out of harm’s way,” Joseph Dyer, president of iRobot’s government and industrial robots division and a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, said in the company’s announcement. “We see this acceleration as clear evidence of the U.S. Army’s recognition of the critical role robots play in arming soldiers with the best intelligence and combat options to provide clear advantage on the battlefield.”

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

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