The next generation of route-clearing robots will give soldiers something of a Swiss army knife of sensors, which will feed directly into the tablet used to control the device.
Manufacturer iRobot has managed to integrate tools to detect dangerous chemical, biological and explosive hazards into its base model, the 60-pound 510 PackBot. According to Tim Trainer, vice president of the robotic products, defense and& security business unit at iRobot, that reduces the time needed cuts into time to prepare to assess a potentially dangerous situation, such as setting up a command post and suiting up a soldier in protective gear to examine a possible threat examine a situation with hand-held sensors.
"Those are all very time consuming things," Trainer said. "What you can do now is show up with the robot, immediately send the robot downrange while you set up a command post, and get real-time intelligence of what the threat is."
Another innovation: the display system. Instead of the ruggedized laptop with a PlayStation-esque remote control, sensors all feed into a ruggedized tablet with a single touch-screen display.
"I think we're the first and only that have integrated that fully into our display system," Trainer said.
Production for the latest model of 510 PackBot is slated for this quarter, and soldiers can first expect to see the upgrades fielded in early 2016. Currently, the Army has fielded about 4,500 510 PackBots, along with about 1,000 of the smaller (about 30-pound) 310 PackBot and more than 500 of a toy-car sized 110 PackBot.
The company also has an eye to win a contract to replace the Army's bigger robot with its 500-pound 710 model. With a lifting capacity of 220 pounds and a top speed of 8 miles per hour, the robot is being evaluated for smoke operations along with the current model's requirements. The model , which is being used to help clean up the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where a tsunami caused a massive leak of radioactive materials in 2011.