Navy to spend $4M on tossable, versatile robots
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2015
During the bloody battle for Fallujah in 2004, Marines took heavy casualties clearing the Iraqi city house by house, room by room, never knowing where a deadly ambush might be waiting.
Now there’s a small robot capable of reducing that risk. The key advance is durability: It can be tossed from behind cover, around corners, through windows and up onto balconies and still send real-time images.
According to contract listings on usaspending.gov, Naval Explosive Ordnance from the Naval Surface Warfare Center bought a few of iRobot Corp.’s 110 FirstLook robots for $138,790 in 2012. Veterans Affairs in Lebanon, Pa., got some for hazardous material handling a year later for $45,764.
Now iRobot says the Navy has put together a $4 million purchase of robots and accessories, which could be heading into action soon. Delivery is scheduled by February.
“iRobot is pleased to provide these state-of-the-art robots to the U.S. Navy as they will help to address a wide variety of missions,” Tom Frost, senior vice president and general manager of iRobot’s Defense & Security business unit, was quoted as saying in a company statement.
“FirstLook is light enough and rugged enough to be thrown through a window or down a flight of stairs, and its capabilities are expandable with the addition of different payloads,” Frost said.
It’s compact — 4 inches tall, 9 inches wide and 10 inches long — and can travel at just over 3 mph and weighs just five pounds, according to iRobot’s website. It has four 360-degree cameras, is waterproof up to several feet, can survive a fall of 15 feet to concrete and rights itself when flipped over. The cost is about $19,000 to $20,000 apiece.
FirstLook can be outfitted with a manipulator to interact with its environment and various mission packages for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, explosive ordnance disposal, hazardous chemical detection and day, night and all-weather operations.
The 110 FirstLook evolved from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s land-based robotics program, said Kevin Ryan, iRobot’s director of robotic products for defense and security. They began rolling off the production line in 2012.
“This is an extremely reliable, rugged, robot,” Ryan said. “That’s its most important feature.”
Navy and Defense Department officials declined to provide details on which commands bought the robots or their intended use. A spokesman for iRobot said the purchaser requested anonymity.
Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot has sold more than 5,000 robots since it was founded 25 years ago, Ryan said. They are probably best known for the PackBot, which was a life-saver for explosive ordnance disposal technicians during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.