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Battle of the bots

Dept. of Defense
Robots can serve as the tip of the
spear for U.S. military units.


The veterans being honored over the past couple of days include modern-day warfighters who are using high-tech tools to fight increasingly tech-savvy foes in Iraq and Afghanistan. And among the most essential tools are the robo-warriors that take on dangerous jobs on the front lines.

How essential, and how dangerous? In the course of a legal case involving rival robot companies, the U.S. military has made clear just how much it has come to rely on battlebots.

The case relates to the Pentagon's $280 million xBot program, which is aimed at getting up to 3,000 robots out to hunt for the increasingly sophisticated explosive devices used against military personnel in Iraq. The first 1,000 robots are to be delivered by December 2008.

After rounds of testing and bidding, Illinois-based Robotic FX was selected over Massachusetts-based iRobot, basically because Robotic FX bid $1 million less for the contract, according to court filings. IRobot protested the award and also filed a lawsuit, alleging that its technology was stolen by the former iRobot employee who started up Robotic FX.

As a result, the Army put the xBot contract on hold - and just this month, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against Robotic FX, saying that iRobot appeared likely to prevail in its lawsuit alleging theft of trade secrets. A trial date has been set for no later than next April 7. (Check out Xconomy for a backgrounder as well as Robotic FX's side of the story and the PDF file of the court order.)

Robotic FX
Robotic FX makes the
Negotiator tactical robot.


The problem is, the military needs those bots pronto. Before the judge's ruling, the U.S. Attorney's Office said the xBot program had to go forward without delay, because otherwise "soldiers will certainly be placed in life-threatening situations when a safer alternative exists."

Marine Col. Edward Ward, the chief for program management at the Army/Marine Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, took a similar tone in another court filing: "If these systems are not sent to the theater [of military operations] in the most expedient manner, a far greater number of soldiers and Marines will be placed in danger."

It's still early in the legal battle, but the Army does have the option of switching the contract over to iRobot if Robotic FX is judged "not responsible" for holding up its end of the deal. And the military has other robotic programs in the works: In fact, iRobot has been supplying its "Packbots" for the Pentagon for five years, starting with bots that hunted Afghan mountain caves for traces of al-Qaida.

"We've delivered 1,200 of them, and we are delivering somewhere between 50 and 70 each month, the majority of which go directly in the theater," said Joe Dyer, president of iRobot's government and industrial division.

iRobot
The SUGV bot is being
developed by iRobot.


The Boeing Co. is working with iRobot to hustle Packbot's successors to the battlefront under another program called SUGV, or "Sugvee" - which stands for Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle. SUGV was seen as a development effort for the longer term, but the military wants to put the program into high gear for use in Iraq sooner rather than later.

Yet another program called MAARS, which stands for Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, could put gun-equipped contraptions into regular combat duty as early as next year, according to Popular Mechanics. These tankbots are said to be "Transformer-like," but unlike the cartoon-world Transformers, they'll be controlled remotely by humans.

It may not be long before we visualize the veterans of the future as gizmo-toting grunts with trusty robots at their side. In fact, Dyer says that day is already here. He recalled the now-classic stories of soldiers who formed emotional bonds with their bomb-hunting bots. They're the kind of bonds that past generations of warfighters formed with their K-9 working dogs, said Dyer, a Navy veteran who worked his way up from aviator to vice admiral.

"And besides that, you know, robots are fearless," he told me. "Consequently, while unmanned aerial vehicles were somewhat slow to evolve because they were so strongly resisted by aviators, the Army mission is so dangerous and so up close and personal ... that the adoption of robots is even quicker."

Dyer brought up one more point about the rise of the machines: You can't talk about the robots without paying tribute to the humans behind them. The bomb technicians who use the robots in Iraq would have to rank as "some of America's most courageous," Dyer said. That could be said about many the folks on the front lines during this long Veterans Day weekend.. 

For much more about military robots, click on over to Wired Danger Room - and check out Robot Stock News for the latest on the bot biz. Here at msnbc.com, the Invention section is the place to go for your robot fix. And as always, feel free to add your comments below about the changing high-tech battlefield.