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IRobot

Roomba maker iRobot also developing military robots for Pentagon

Thursday, December 14, 2006 by: Ben Kage
Tags: iRobot, military robots, Roomba

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(NewsTarget) While civilian consumers can get a taste of the Jetsons' lifestyle with iRobot's Roomba vacuuming, floor washing and floor sweeping robots, the military is also taking advantage of the company's technology, but not to clean the barracks.

The iRobot line of military robots includes scout robots that can reconnoiter unknown territory or inaccessible areas; an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) robot able to disarm bombs without risking human lives; and an unmanned all-purpose ATV. The robots have been used in recent conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the response from military personnel has been positive. The testimonials displayed on the iRobot site display a general consensus that iRobot products save lives.

"When a robot dies you don't have to write a letter to its mother," a Navy chief is quoted as saying after a iRobot PackBot EOD model was destroyed in the field.

The ethics statement at the iRobot site states, "We are committed to making the world a better place by building robots that are used by people everyday. Our home robots clean your house and our mobile tactical robots help protect our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan." But critics are still wary of giving robots to Uncle Sam.

"At what point will these military robots start being equipped with automatic weapons, grenades or high explosives?" said Mike Adams, a technology ethicist. "At that point, the U.S. military becomes a human/machine hybrid killing system, where armed, automated robots might be unleashed upon some civilian population in order to maximize enemy casualties while minimizing American casualties.

"Consumers who buy Roomba robots should realize they are financially supporting a company that is deeply engaged in military operations," he said.

On Nov. 16, iRobot received $1.6 million in funding from the U.S. government's Technical Support Working Group (TSWG) in order to develop, field test and train in the use of the iRobot Warrior. The Warrior is already used in combat situations as an EOD robot, and it can also be used to transport ammunition and supplies to troops, even in the middle of a firefight, or extract injured troops from the battlefield. However, a press release on the iRobot web site also states that the Warrior "has the potential to be a co-combatant" alongside soldiers. Joe Dyer, President of iRobot Government & Industrial Robots said in the email that, in response to customer requests, the company was also considering arming the iRobot PackBot with a shotgun.

However, Dyer said that armed iRobot products are not going to be allowed to make their own life-or-death decisions any time soon.

"If a weapons payload is attached, it is important to ensure extreme safety and that there is a human making all critical decisions," he said in an email interview. "IRobot robots have safety systems to ensure correct usage and it always puts a human in the decision-making process.

"Robots give soldiers the ability to understand what they're getting into, before they put themselves in harm's way," Dyer said. "Future robots will carry military equipment as payloads including weapons, thermal imagers, cameras, mine detectors, chemical and biological agent detectors."

Yet, the concept of an autonomous robot armed with lethal weaponry is far from paranoia, as at least one has already gone into production. Samsung recently unveiled its Intelligent Surveillance and Guard Robot, a stationary sentry robot armed with a 5.5-millimeter K3 machine gun and an optical system, intended for deployment along the heavily fortified South Korean border. The robot is able to track human targets up to 2.5 miles away and can be programmed to respond to a spoken password. If the password is incorrect, the robot can sound an alarm or shoot at its target.

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