The U.S. Army is scrambling to adapt its bomb finding robots to the different conditions encountered in Afghanistan. In Iraq, most of the roadside bombs were made from old artillery shells, so metal detectors were good at detecting them. Plus most of these bombs were on the roadside and most of the roads were paved. In Afghanistan, most of the roads are dirt, and there is greater use of bombs off road, to catch foot patrols. The bombs in Afghanistan often use little metal, and the explosives are improvised from fertilizer and fuel oil. There are sensors that can detect the unique odor of a fertilizer bomb, but these sensors are not as accurate as metal detectors.
Faced with these new problems, the U.S. is developing smell sensors and mobility functions for its its PackBot 510/FasTac remotely controlled robots. This, plus new control software, would enable the robots to just go sniff a specified area on its own until it finds something, or just finishes searching the assigned area. The robot makers are also scrambling to redesign their robots to handle off road work, as in moving ahead of a foot patrol, sniffing for explosives. This involves more mobility (climbing and jumping) than current battlefield droids are capable of.
Increasingly, it's the software that is the most important new development for the PackBot (and similar robots). Recent software upgrades made the PackBot easier to use for experienced operators, and easier to learn for novices. This is done by giving the droid more intelligence of its own, so that it can anticipate common user actions, and move more quickly and precisely to get the job done. The work includes everything from checking under vehicles, or inside buildings for bombs, to closely examining bombs or searching inside buildings or caves for enemy troops. There are already accessories for seeking out chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and bomb sniffing attachments are on the way. Software and sensors are the growth area for these combat robots, especially with the army no longer able to buy as many as it used to. Manufacturer iRobot has sold over 3,500 PackBots, earning several hundred million dollars in sales.
Weighing 24 kg (53 pounds), and 406mm (16 inches) wide, 686mm (27 inches) long and 406mm high, The PackBot 510 has one flexible arm with the camera on it, and another flexible arm with a gripper hand. Actually, there are over sixty accessories available, but most PackBots go to work with the flexible arm and one or more cameras. Top speed is 9 kilometers an hour, and they cost $75,000 each. This PackBot can run four hours (over 25 kilometers of travel) on one battery charge. The gripper arm can extend up to 106.7cm (42 inches) and lift 2.4-7.5 kg (5-15 pounds) depending on how close the arm is to the bot. The PackBot 510/FasTac model was introduced early last year.
Current PackBots are controlled via software and communications on a laptop, with a well-though-out game controller for actually manipulating the bot. Range of radio control is 1,000 meters. The PackBot is waterproof. Operators usually employ a ruggedized, 14 pound laptop, and a game console type controller, to operate the droids. The PackBot has zoom on the camera, and the camera arm has infrared (invisible to enemy unless they are wearing special glasses) and LED spotlights. Another option is two way radio, so that the operator, or a translator, can speak to someone near the droid. Earlier this year, the army cancelled orders for thousands of PackBot and Talon combat robots. With the plunge in roadside bomb activity in Iraq, and the weak efforts of the Taliban in Afghanistan to use those devices, there is a sharp drop in need for these small robots. But in Afghanistan, there is a growing need for more agile, smarter robots, equipped with a good sense of smell. The Taliban have built a lot more of these bombs (200 or more a week), but so far only a few percent of them manage to kill or wound foreign troops. Better robots will help keep that small percentage to get smaller.
Currently, the Department of Defense owns some 6,000 small robots, about a third of them PackBots. Most of all these droids are in the army, and a little over half are in a combat zone. There would be a lot more of these small robots out there if they were a bit smaller and had better sensors. Because of these shortcomings, efforts to have the infantry regularly use the small robots in combat have not been successful. The older 42 pound Packbot and hundred pound Talon were fine for dealing with roadside bombs, but too big and heavy to easily haul around the battlefield. But most troops admitted that if the small droids were a bit smaller and lighter, and had better ability to sense what was around ("situational awareness") them, they would be more welcome.
Before September 11, 2001, the army didn't expect to have robots like PackBot until 2013. But the technology was already there, and the war created a major demand. The robots expected in 2013 were to be part of a new generation of gear called FCS (Future Combat Systems). These small robots are still waiting for some of the high tech FCS communications and sensor equipment, and are using off-the-shelf stuff in the meantime. The troops don't care, as long as it works.
Tens of thousands of troops have combat experience with these small droids, mainly for bomb disposal work. A small number of troops have used the robots for security jobs, and an even smaller group for combat work. It will be another 5-10 years before several new generations of droids, and more powerful sensors and software, can be developed, delivered and evaluated by the troops. The droids will never have the same senses (sight, hearing, smell, vibrations) that humans do, but they are acquiring similar skills that are useful enough. These droids are becoming more powerful, and a new generation of data analysis software makes it possible for near-future droids to quickly interpret what they "sense" and let their operator know, quickly, that there is something out there, and approximately where it is. Within the next few years, there will be a droid that will turn its sensors (camera/thermal sensor) around to give the operator a better look at what it "heard" or "felt". Smell will take a little longer, but it's on the way. By then, the droids will also be able to operate on their own a lot, and respond to voice commands. In ten years, there will be small droids that you won't be able to sneak up on. That's the sort of bot the troops want to go into action with. And at that point, infantry units will have them as part of their basic equipment.