The Army gets its wireless robots

Looks like the Army is getting its wee mobile robots. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) this week gave the iRobot Corp. a contract to build LANdroids -- wireless, mobile devices soldiers wear or can spread over a battlefield that, once deployed, would then form a self-healing wireless mesh network capable of voice/data transmissions.

“More than 1,300 of iRobot’s field-tested and combat-proven PackBot robots have been deployed in theater delivering mission-critical support to warfighters around the globe,” said Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of iRobot. DARPA didn’t release the value of the contract but experts say the devices will run about $100 each.         

In a mesh, wireless devices connect to a nearby node, which passes the packets to one or more companion nodes. Algorithms are used to find a route for optimal performance and avoid downed nodes or interference. Nodes in a mesh don’t need cabled network connections, so deployments are relatively simple, fast, and inexpensive, compared with using convention WLAN access points.

In a battlefield situation they would be ideal for setting up and tearing down networks, experts say.As the battlefield situation changes, the nodes will adapt the network, such as self-healing if nodes are destroyed by the enemy. Being able to crawl, the LANdroids will enable effective communications in crowded, hard to reach locales - such as city streets and urban battle zones.DARPA says the LANdroids robots will consist of a radio, robotic platform, battery, and small processor, will be expendable.

Solders’ must be able to drop and go - benefiting from the infrastructure while it is in place but not being required to move back into harm’s way to retrieve the robots.

Intelligent robot vendor iRobot, probably best known for its Roomba vacuuming robot and Verro Pool Cleaning machine has made a lot of noise in the military robot arena lately.  It recently licensed Laser Radar or Ladar technology for use in its line of military robots, a move that could result in a new line of machines that can see and operate more effectively in dangerous situations.  Such small, advanced robots could be deployed in less than a year, experts said. 

In addition, the US Army accelerated its testing schedules for iRobot’s Future Combat Systems Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) robot development program. The updated plan calls for iRobot to deliver a total of 25 SUGV robots by April 2008. The Army Evaluation Task Force will begin evaluation and testing of the robots in May 2008. 

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