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Robotic-vacuum maker, BU team up on antisniper device

(Correction: Because of an editing error, a story in yesterday's Business section about an anti-sniper system developed by iRobot misidentified the date on which the company unveiled the system. It was demonstrated by iRobot on Monday at a convention of the Association of the United States Army in Washington.)

IRobot Corp. of Burlington, famous for its robotic vacuum cleaners, has teamed up with researchers at Boston University to develop a military robot capable of spotting enemy snipers.

''You'll actually see the sniper before the smoke disappears from the shot," said Joe Dyer, iRobot's executive vice president and general manager.

IRobot demonstrated the system, called REDOWL (for Robot Enhanced Detection Outpost with Lasers), at the Association of the United States Army convention in Washington yesterday. Testers struck pieces of metal to simulate gunshots. REDOWL quickly aimed its infrared camera and laser rangefinder at the source of the noise, just as it did in tests at a Medfield gun range.

REDOWL is based on iRobot's PackBot, a battery-powered lightweight robot already in active service with the armed forces. PackBots are used to explore dangerous terrain or enter buildings to search for booby traps.

Glenn Thoren, deputy director of the Boston University Photonics Center, wondered if an antisniper system could be mounted atop a PackBot. He used laser rangefinder gear from Insight Technology Inc. in Londonderry, N.H., and sound-detection equipment developed by BioMimetic Systems, an acoustics start-up company founded by Boston University. The REDOWL also includes a Sony digital camera that can zoom in on distant objects or people, and display infrared images at night. When REDOWL's microphones detect a gunshot, the device calculates the source of the sound, swivels the camera, illuminates the target with either visible or infrared light, and uses a laser to calculate the range.

Yet the entire system adds only about 5.5 pounds to the PackBot's weight. Thoren said it's small enough to mount on military vehicles or on the sides of buildings. That makes it much smaller than Boomerang, a competing antisniper technology being developed for the military by BBN Technologies Inc. in Cambridge.

Dyer said that in tests, the REDOWL detected gunfire sources with 94 percent accuracy, and can distinguish between guns. ''It can tell the difference between a 9 millimeter pistol and an AK-47 or an M-16," he said.

The machine also works in urban settings, where snipers are hard to spot because gunshot sounds echo off buildings. Dyer said REDOWL's software can detect the original sound source and ignore the echoes.

In theory, a REDOWL system could fire back at an enemy, but Thoren said the hardware isn't strong enough to support the weight of a gun. Besides, he said, it would be dangerous to have a weapon-toting robot that could open fire on its own.

''You need to have a man in the loop," he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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