After iRobot Split, Endeavor Rides Growth in Military Robot Spending

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there are currently no plans to do so, Frost says. If the company were to eventually arm its machines, the weapons would require human control, he says.

“We’re not in favor of autonomous weapons,” Frost says. “We’re not at a capability in autonomy or A.I. or any of those related technologies, where [control of weapons] should be ceded over to a machine. It’s not just about the technology. It’s about always having that last judgment call done by a human.”

Frost says equipping robots with weapons is a serious issue that “deserves careful thought,” although he thinks people’s fears that we’re “on the cusp” of putting armies of autonomous killer robots on the battlefield are “premature.”

While debates over weaponized robots won’t be settled any time soon, a more immediate question for Endeavor is whether it can take advantage of the other opportunities arising from growing military interest in robotics. The key challenge for the company could be continuing to improve its technologies while ensuring its products fit well with customers’ evolving strategies.

One shift: the U.S. military is increasingly requiring interoperable robots, so that, say, a sensor or arm made by one company could be attached to a robot made by another. Endeavor has “embraced” that approach, and it’s also contributing to an open-source software library for military robots, Frost says. The idea is to enable continuous enhancement of robots in the field, without having to replace them to take advantage of emerging technologies, he says.

The company is also working to make its robots easier to operate, so they require less specialized training, Frost says. Military troops and engineers can now control multiple Endeavor robots with handheld tablets. The company is also advancing the machines’ autonomous capabilities, Frost says, an effort that has been going on for years. For example, Endeavor is developing robots that can navigate buildings on their own, mapping them out and alerting people to where there might be hazardous substances or other dangers, Frost says.

One of the bigger goals is figuring out effective ways for robots to “work in concert with humans”—and with each other, Frost says. “We’ve been doing some work on this, [exploring] ways that ground robots and airborne robots can work together,” he adds.

Remnants of the “Scooby-Doo” PackBot apparently taken out by an explosive on its 18th mission. Photo courtesy of Endeavor Robotics.

Endeavor’s robots have taken a lot of hits over the years. One robot on display at Endeavor’s headquarters has 17 tick marks on its side, apparently indicating how many explosive devices the PackBot defeated during missions in Iraq, the company says. “It looks like maybe number 18 took it out,” Frost says. “It’s blown to pieces and covered in char.”

That robot is nicknamed Scooby-Doo, Frost says. It’s an example of how some operators “become very personally attached to their robots, and in fact insist when their robots are damaged that we repair their robot as opposed to replace their robot,” he says. “Their robot is as close to them as a person might be to a beloved dog.”

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