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Helping hand from iRobot

Bedford firm sends four robots to Japan’s rescue, recovery effort

Bedford company iRobot says its machines may ease rescues. Bedford company iRobot says its machines may ease rescues.
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 26, 2011

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A week after the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of Japan, a truck left the headquarters of iRobot Corp. in Bedford. Its cargo: four military robots, two of them prototypes. IRobot engineers had outfitted the robots with special modifications that could help the Japanese gain control of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors or conduct rescue operations in their shattered cities.

Japanese government officials and relief agencies hadn’t asked for the robots, but the company saw no reason to wait for a request. “We leaned way forward on this,’’ said Tim Trainer, vice president of operations for iRobot’s government and industrial division.

Trainer said the company has a tradition of shipping robots and trained personnel to disaster sites where the technology might prove useful, even if no aid was requested. The company wasn’t asked to send its robots to New York City after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but it did. And the machines were used to search the wreckage.

Last summer, when an oil well explosion dumped millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, iRobot volunteered its Seaglider underwater robots to track the spread of the oil spill.

Now iRobot hopes the Japanese can find uses for its four machines, even though Trainer doesn’t know what those might be. The robots have been delivered to Japanese relief workers, who’ve been trained to operate them. “We’re standing by to see how the Japanese may seek to employ them,’’ Trainer said.

The machines are designed to handle a variety of tasks. Two are the company’s PackBots, the same model used at the World Trade Center nearly a decade ago. IRobot has sold about 3,500 of these 60-pound machines; many are used by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. PackBots are equipped with cameras for unmanned surveillance of potentially dangerous areas. They can be controlled remotely by radio or through a fiber-optic cable that unwraps from a spool mounted on the machine.

The other two robots are a new model, the 710 Warrior. These weigh 350 pounds and feature arms that can lift as much as 200 pounds. Last week, iRobot engineers worked for 24 hours nonstop to modify the Warriors for the Japanese mission. Each was given an arm attachment suitable for dragging a fire hose as well as the same fiber-optic cable spool found on PackBots.

Japan is a world leader in robotics. But Trainer said that the country’s top robotics firms mainly build stationary industrial machines for use on assembly lines rather than mobile rescue or surveillance robots.

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

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