iRobot Demonstrates New Weaponized Robot

iRobot has released video showing a Warrior robot deploying an anti-personnel obstacle breaching system

2 min read
iRobot Demonstrates New Weaponized Robot

UPDATE: Some readers argued that the APOBS, or Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System, developed in a joint program of the U.S. Army and Navy, is not, technically, a weapon, because it's not an anti-personnel system but rather a system used against obstacles. Perry Villanueva, the project engineer for the APOBS program on the Army side, says the APOBS "is not a weapon in the traditional sense, but it is a weapon." Other readers wondered how the rocket compensates for things like wind. Villanueva says that is more of an operational issue. "With high winds it is up to the soldier to position it so it will have a high probability of landing on its target."

iRobot released today new video of its Warrior robot, a beefed-up version of the more well-known PackBot, demonstrating use of the APOBS, or Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System, an explosive line charge towed by a rocket, with a small parachute holding back the end of the line. The APOBS, iRobot says, is designed for "deliberate breaching of anti-personnel minefields and multi-strand wire obstacles." It can clear a path 45 meters long and 0.6 meters wide.

iRobot worked with the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD), the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC), and the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific Experimentation Center (MEC) for this demonstration. It took place in November 2009 at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California's Mojave Desert.

Although it may concern those who don't like the arming of robots, it makes great eye candy for those who like robots, rockets, and explosions.

Now, let me say this: I am neither condoning nor condemning the weaponization of robots, just stating the facts that I am aware of.

In early 2009 a handful of defense related companies came to Thailand to demonstrate their latest war toys to the local generals. One of those companies was iRobot, and as I have many friends who work for iRobot and I was living in Bangkok at that time, I got to meet up with them to see one of the toys they brought: a Warrior.

At the time, the Warrior hardware was complete, designed to carry 150 pounds, but I've seen it lift people standing on it. Unfortunately, and understandably, many of my questions about it were answered with "we aren't sure we are allowed to answer that." I couldn't get an answer as to how much it would cost, but I was given the impression that it's more than $100,000 per unit.

Back in the day, the founders of iRobot had been against the weaponization of robots. Perhaps business and financial pressures are pushing the boundaries. Indeed, the military market is becoming ever more important, according to the company's first quarter results. Finances were very tight in 2009, so iRobot probably sees military systems as a market they'll have to explore and expand.

Updated by Erico Guizzo, June 1, 2010: Added details on APOBS; edited comments on iRobot financials and weaponized robots. June 2: Added details on demonstration participants, date, and place. June 3: Added more details on APOBS.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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