Robots have played increasingly larger roles in military air and ground sorties, and they are starting to see action in civilian missions as well. While surrounded by some of the latest developments at the NDIA Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference & Exhibition (Orlando, FL, March 22-24), iRobot (www.irobot.com) unveiled their new AVA and FirstLook ground robots.

The firm also announced during the show that it had offered four of its unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in aid to Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces (JGSDF), in the aftermath of the devastation from the record earthquake and tsunamis, and the resulting damage to power-producing nuclear reactors. Its four UGVs would be put to use at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. A team of iRobot employees is also involved in the rescue efforts, teaching the JGSDF on how to operate the robots.

Of course, consumers of high-end electronic equipment may be familiar with iRobot for an entirely different category of products: The company produces a wide array of cleaning robots. Its Roomba® vacuum-cleaning robots and Scooba® floor-cleaning robots are used in many top hotels, while its Verro® robots maintain swimming pools of many luxury residences. But it is on the battlefield where many of the company's most-satisfied customers can be found, using remote-controlled UGVs for such applications as bomb disposal.

During the NDIA Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference & Exhibition, iRobot displayed many of its well-known military products — including its model 510 PackBot UGV, which has performed countless bomb disposal and other critical missions not only for warfighters, but increasingly for first responders (Fig. 1).

Another familiar product is the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) developed jointly by iRobot and Boeing (www.boeing.com); it was designed for gathering situational awareness data under dangerous conditions and in hostile environments, without putting human soldiers at risk.

The company's most recent addition to the product line, the model SUGV 320, designed specifically for infantry troop use, was recently evaluated during testing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Weighing only 32 lbs (14.5 kg) without payload, the SUGV (Fig. 2) features an easy-to-use controller and can be equipped with an optical camera with 312X zoom, a thermal camera for detection through smoke, two-way radio, and laser rangefinder.

The big news at iRobot's exhibition booth, however, was their announcement of the new AVA and FirstLook robots. The highly portable AVA can be equipped with a variety of sensors — including laser, sonar, and three-dimensional (3D) imaging sensors — and is designed to operate with a tablet-based computer interface. The robot can be controlled by voice, gesture, and touch with an iPad from Apple Computer (www.apple.com).

The FirstLook was developed as a “throwable” robot, to gather situational awareness data in extremely confined spaces. Weighing about 5 lbs, it is extremely portable and invaluable for both military users and first responders.

At present, most battlefield robots require multiple operators to control their different motions and functions. While much research is being performed by robotics companies such as iRobot on robotic motion — trying to duplicate the motions of biological organisms such as small animals or hummingbirds for more efficient motion — just as much research goes into the human-robot interface in an attempt to achieve improved, more efficient control.