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The Robots Are Coming

NOON -- I have seen the future, and it is clean, dust-free, and more than a bit frightening. The future, in this case, is one that is populated by robots. Lots of them, in all sizes and shapes.

They range from those little Roomba devices that slip across floors like metallic hamburgers, to really intimidating models with tractor drives and a bulbous eye that sits atop a crane-like neck. Makes you want to hide all the batteries and run for the hills. Only that won’t help, because these babies will find you.

Recently, I attended a conference on robotics at Boston University, where you wouldn’t think a lot is happening in this particular area -- but let’s not forget the university includes a school of engineering and a pretty sophisticated photonics center, both tucked in the shadow of Boston’s Fenway Park. Also, BU gets a lot of cash from the Defense Research Planning Agency (DARPA) and others to do some very hush-hush research into the area of military robots and Homeland Security tools.

I arrived a bit late (blame it on Boston traffic!) and was not even halfway through my first bagel before I was hit with the first salvo of robots in the military presentations. Leading the charge was Colin Angle, CEO and co-founder of iRobot, a company best known for developing that hamburger-shaped Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. I won’t knock it, since the company has managed to sell 1.5 million of these small units and claims to not even have scratched the market potential yet.

Angle did the Roomba rumba, talking about coming variations of the device and the company’s interest in creating systems for the healthcare and elder markets -- including really intimidating "physical avatars" that extend a doctor’s personality right into your living room and your face. Right now, about a third of all nurses are 50 years or older, and 40 percent will be older than 50 by 2010. So, the best bet for everyone as we all get older is to partner with a robot to provide needed care, conversation, and perhaps an adult diaper change or two. “The challenge of caring for the elderly is expensive and getting more so," Angle said.

He then segued into the company’s obviously heavy involvement in the development of military "battlebots" and the role it is playing in the government’s Future Combat Systems plans. iRobot also has its hand in the development of networked robots that can together cover a wide area and report back to each other to decide which action to take.

Sounds a bit Star Trek and borg-like to me, but the whole idea, he reminded everyone between bites of bagel, is to “keep soldiers out of caskets.” Oh yeah -- there is a cost-savings involved as well. A robot will only set taxpayers back 10 or 20 thousand dollars each, while your average soldier represents up to a $4 million investment.

Eventually the U.S. government hopes to expand its robot corps to about 3,600 devices, ranging from large and battle-ready "packbots" -- the devices iRobot is helping to develop that are already in use in Iraq and other hotspots -- to small suitcase-sized systems that can be tossed in the air and then fly in and around buildings to scout out the bad guys. One prototype even resembles a dog (minus the head and sloppy drool) that walks beside a soldier carrying heavy packs and ammunition. Kick this "Big Dog" (yes, that’s its code name) and it will quickly recover and keep on walking. Good boy!

One other person presenting at the conference was Stephen Welby, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office and a man who seemed to have had way too much coffee that morning. He enthusiastically talked about remote-control planes and real-life rock-em sock-em robots that have been used by the military since World War II. He also showed some terrific films of these machines in action, flying behind troops and hopping from ledge to ledge in pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

I later tried to get a copy of these films and the DARPA PowerPoint but was told they were unavailable. I was almost tempted to send my personal Roomba army over to DARPA to suck all these films in and scurry away into the night. But, I though better when I realized their robots could probably beat up my robots. Besides, I had floors to clean anyway.

— Tim Scannell is Founder of Shoreline Research . Special to Unstrung

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