From the floor: Firms enhance unmanned systems  

10/24/2012 2:30 PM 

Nick Adde

Since the first unmanned robots debuted on the battlefield in Bosnia in 1999, the devices have more than proved their worth in a variety of missions. Troops in the field who once had to put themselves in harm’s way for explosive-ordnance disposal (EOD), resupply, or reconnaissance and surveillance tasks now almost exclusively rely upon the devices.

Acutely aware of the key role their products now play, the companies that design and manufacture these unmanned ground systems are focusing their efforts on enhancing their utilitarian traits.

At the Association for the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition, held Oct. 22-24 in Washington, two major players in robotics and unmanned systems provided demonstrations of innovative devices that in some cases already are helping soldiers and marines do their jobs better and more safely.

Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot’s defense and security business division is competing with four other companies to produce a very lightweight and affordable treaded vehicle that weighs five pounds. The device, called FirstLook, is geared for reconnaissance and special-operations missions. It recently completed an operational assessment in Afghanistan, along with its competitors. The four contractors are awaiting the Army’s final word as to which device prevailed.

FirstLook has a camera mounted on each side, enabling it to provide a 360-degree view of its operational environment. It can climb as high as seven inches, scale stairs, right itself if flipped over, and withstand a drop of 15 feet onto hard concrete. A field operator can control and monitor it with a screen-equipped joystick controller. For EOD missions, it can carry a C4 munition to an improvised explosive device and detonate it.

Unit costs of the FirstLook vary by configuration and the size of a purchase order. Company spokesman Charlie Vaida said they average about $20,000 per unit.

Meanwhile, Qinetiq North America displayed two comparable small robots at the AUSA meeting and exposition, the Dragon Runner 10 and the Dragon Runner 20. Like FirstLook, the Dragon Runners can be carried easily, recharged in the field, and operate over difficult terrain.