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The floor of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., was an obstacle course this week, as the Association of the United States Army convention brought together, among other defense contractors, various robot makers from around the world, to demo their goods to military leaders and the curious.
Despite the drawdown in Afghanistan and the end of the war in Iraq, the military still needs robotic systems to detect improvised explosive devices as well as provide tactical intelligence.
In the up-and-coming category is a young Israeli firm called Roboteam, which markets a variety of robots, the coolest of which is the Micro Tactical Ground Robot, or MTGR. The two-year-old MTGR made some news last summer as Israeli Defense Forces deployed them to search out Hamas tunnels in Gaza. This, according to a report in defenseone.
At around $70,000 for a no-frills unit, it’s much cheaper than competing systems like the recently unveiled the QinetiQ Talon V or the iRobot Packbot, which are priced starting at $100k. The MTGR is also less rugged, but that may not be problem for a robot that’s been designed to find stuff that blows up.
The next step for robot manufactures is to make them easier to operate in groups. Last week, iRobot released a new Android piloting system called uPoint Multi-Robot Control. Defense One tested it on site and found it fast, intuitive and not unlike an iPad-based first-person-shooter video game.
The view is what the robot sees from one of its designated cameras. Press a button and you can steer it without a joystick simply by moving your finger on the screen. The Android tablet detects finger movement and actually plots where the user might send the machine in the form of yellow trajectory lines that show up on the screen. These allow the user to know if they are sending their $100,000 robot off a cliff. You can also designate a spot within line of sight and the robot will move there automatically. And you can easily switch between the different robots in network as easily as you might switch between apps.
At some point, the military will want robots capable of running their own missions, hunting for IEDs, looking around corners and sending visual data to the cloud for rapid—and robotic—visual analysis and all without direct piloting. A single operator would be able to control dozens of robots that weren’t just loitering but carrying out operations.