Further to yesterday's post about the Grand Challenge, the invaluable StrategyPage takes a look at procurement of frontline combat robots:
The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a $140 million contract for more battlefield robots, as well as parts, repairs and training. This is just for one model of MTRS (Man Transportable Robotic System), the iRobot Packbot. Actually, there are several models of Packbot, but the most popular job for these remote controlled vehicles (that look like a miniature tank, with an extendable arm where the turret should be) is checking out possible roadside bombs, or booby traps, or the insides of caves or buildings believed to hold hostile gunmen. For over a decade, there have been larger (over a hundred pounds) remote control vehicles like this for bomb squads. But better designs, and smaller electronics, have made the "man-portable" (under 40 pounds) units possible. Two years ago, there were several different MTRS systems in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the iRobot equipment has emerged as the most popular, and most effective. This means troops no longer have to get close to possible bombs, and risk getting blown up when nearby terrorists detonate the device. The MTRS has become very popular with the troops, and saved many lives. The Packbots proved very user friendly and reliable, so now over a thousand of the $115,000 MTRS units are on order.
Comparing these devices with Grand Challenge style autonomous ground vehicles is really an apples and oranges mismatch. Very few of the 'combat' bots have any weaponry installed - they are recon and EOD specialists. And their range of autonomous action is at most a limited amount of self-steering and obstacle avoidance.
For the investors our there, iRobot - the maker of the described Packbot - is in S-1 registration.