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Robots going in harm's way

Agile new devices save lives by disarming or detonating roadside bombs

The war in Iraq has proven the lethal effectiveness of roadside bombs.

But the war has also proven the value of a new tool to deal with the bombs: small, agile robots that disarm or detonate the bombs at the direction of soldiers who operate the robots from a safe distance.

The Talon, by Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, has emerged as one of stars of this new class of robots, which have begun to encourage new thinking about military applications for robots.

"The old generation was big, slow, lumbering behemoths, and they were usually operated on a tether to relay commands," said Robert Quinn, Foster-Miller's vice president of Talon operations. There was also a perception that robots took jobs away from humans. Now, robots are seen as expendable helpers that protect human life.

"This war has proven that small, fast, easy-to-operate robots save lives," Quinn said.

Marine Colonel Edward Ward is division chief in the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, located at Redstone Arsenal, Ala. Since 2004, he said, more than 4,000 robotic systems have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Our robotic systems performed nearly 30,000 missions in 2006, neutralizing more than 11,000 improvised explosive devices and saving thousand of lives," Ward said by e-mail.

Ward said that his group has put 400 Talons into service, while the company said that other military purchases of the systems, which cost more than $100,000 apiece, put the number of its robots sent to Iraq and Afghanistan above 800.

Talon's biggest competitor is the better-known iRobot Inc. of Burlington, which has made a consumer splash with its autonomous Roomba vacuum cleaner and a follow-up, the Scooba, which washes smooth floors. The iRobot company has also sold the military about 800 of its PackBot EOD robots, which are also used to disarm bombs.

While its parent company isn't as familiar as iRobot, the Talon has begun attracting attention for its design. Electronic Design magazine named Talon its military design of the year.

John Edwards, an Electronic Design contributing editor and a specialist on advanced weapons, said he was most impressed with how tough the Talon is.

"A lot of people think these robots are cutting-edge devices and perhaps inherently fragile," Edwards said. "These are anything but fragile. What's great is the sheer ruggedness of it."

Quinn of Foster-Miller loves to tell stories illustrating Talon's durability. He also recalled how one Talon was riding on the back of a Humvee crossing a bridge when an explosion sent the robot into a river. Soldiers using a remote control were able to drive the Talon out of the water.

Another robot was damaged and repaired 13 times at repair facilities the company maintains in Iraq. The fourteenth explosion did it in.

The Talon is also easy to use. The remote control unit is contained in an armored suitcase. Pull the drive joystick toward you, and the Talon chugs forward on grippy rubber tracks, like a miniature tank. Turn the joystick to one side or the other, and it will perform a surprisingly agile pirouette.

Two other joysticks manipulate a centrally mounted arm. Within minutes, a new user can use the gripper at the end of the arm to perform feats like picking up bottles. Flat screens fitted in the lid of the remote control unit give a robot's-eye view from four cameras mounted on the Talon.

Talon robots do not employ particularly exotic technology. A 12-pound battery provides power for four hours. Talon travels at up to 5.2 miles per hour and climbs and descends stairs using its rugged tracks, not a novel articulated leg system. Outside suppliers provide the sensors and sniffers that enable the Talon to detect bombs and other threats.

But Talon employs several novel strategies for disarming bombs. One is to approach the weapon and fire a powerful water jet at the bomb, rendering it inoperable. Another takes advantage of the fact that many IEDs are exploded using cellphones. Instead of using the wireless remote control, Talon can be guided into place by a long cable. Once near the bomb, the robot projects a signal that blocks incoming calls to the cellphone, preventing the device from going off.

Foster-Miller was started in 1956 by three MIT graduates and performs product development, advanced material research, and also makes production equipment, instrumentation, and controls. It is now owned by QuinetiQ, a company that was formerly the advanced research arm of the British Army and is now publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange.

Talon wasn't originally intended to travel dusty streets and blistering deserts. In the early 1990s, Quinn said, the Office of Naval Research gave Foster-Miller grants totaling about $10 million to develop a device that could clear a minefield in the surf. The concept was to develop a crawling device that could identify mines with sensors, communicate with a human controller, and detonate mines.

In 1995, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which sponsors research for the military, provided additional funding for robot development, giving Foster-Miller $3 million to $5 million a year. In 2000, the first Talons were deployed in Bosnia to move unexploded grenades.

Talons were also used at the site of the World Trade Center in New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During excavation of the site, there was a fear that retaining walls holding back the Hudson River might give way. Talon robots inspected the walls, sending images showing the walls were safe.

Talon is evolving to anticipate new threats. A separate version of the robot packs firepower such as a machine gun or grenade launcher that can be remotely aimed and fired.

The latest version, introduced last month, is equipped with a rack for up to seven sensors, including those that can sense temperature, explosives, industrial gases, radiation, and weapons of mass destruction.

"The rack has just two quick-release pins," said Jennifer Sarkis, project engineer on the Talon robot. "Plug in your sensors, and you're good to go."

Military funding remains a key driver of robot development. Robotics Trends, a Framingham online publisher and robotics event organizer, said the Army plans to spend $500 million between 2004 and 2009 for "unmanned ground platforms." DARPA is funding more than 40 robot projects at universities and companies.

Dan Kara, president of Robotics Trends, gives Foster-Miller credit for improving on a good basic design.

"I suspect," Kara said, "they've only begun building to find what these mobile, intelligent platforms are good at."

Jeffrey Krasner can be reached at krasner@globe.com.

Related:
Video INTERVIEW WITH A ROBOT: A visit to the Talon group
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