Magazine article National Defense

Opportunities for Non-Military Robots Increase

Magazine article National Defense

Opportunities for Non-Military Robots Increase

Article excerpt

* In the last decade, the U.S. military poured money into unmanned ground systems to help protect troops against improvised explosive devices, but the Defense Department won't need all those robots once the war in Afghanistan comes to a close.

Robotics manufacturers may lament the news, but it isn't too much of a surprise, say industry executives and analysts. Reports indicate the wider market for ground robots is expanding in agriculture, logistics and health care.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army spent more than $730 million on unmanned ground systems that conducted missions such as bomb disposal and detection, route clearance and reconnaissance.

"There was a very specific need, and now that need is slowly disappearing," said Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Army Maj. Gen. Robert Dyess, director of the G-8's force development directorate, warned that spending on ground robotics systems could be slowing down.

"You will hear me say today that the Army is committed to unmanned ground systems, and then you will also say that your investment should follow your commitment," he said at AUVSI's annual program review held in February. The Defense Department's investments in ground robots during fiscal year 2014 may cause industry to question that commitment, he continued.

Just as troops leave Afghanistan, so will many of the robots that worked alongside them. The Army plans to upgrade 2,700 of its systems for use in training or further deployments, Dyess said. Another 2,469 will be divested and given to Defense Department partners or other government agencies.

Besides the Navy's Advanced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System--a program of record to field a family of three bomb disposal robots--the Defense Department will likely favor funding research-and-development projects over procuring new platforms, Mailey said.

Although the U.S. military's spending on UGVs could decrease, a 2012 report put out by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) concluded that the wider market for service robots--robots that assist humans--is growing.

The report, which bases its predictions on sales figures of robots across the globe, estimates industry will buy about 93,800 service robots from 2012 and 2015.

U.S. and international defense applications make up about 28,000 of that number. The report did not take into account lower U.S. procurements of unmanned ground vehicles in its predictions, Gudrun Litzenberger of IFR's statistics department said in an email. Still, IFR's estimates are on the conservative side, she noted.

Sales of service robots increased 9 percent from 2010 to 2011, the IFR report said. The value of sales increased by 6 percent to $3.6 billion worldwide in the same period. Defense robots, including unmanned aerial vehicles, made up 40 percent of sales.

For iRobot--a Bedford, Mass.-based company that has found success in both the commercial and defense sectors--the downturn in Defense Department spending resulted in a drop in revenue from $465.5 million in 2011 to $436.2 million in 2012, according to financial statements.

In the past, defense and security sales made up about 40 percent of iRobot's revenue, said spokesman Matthew Lloyd. Because of decreased contracts with the military and a 28-percent increase in sales of its home robots such as the Roomba, sales of defense robots are now only 10 percent of the company's business.

"We still see unmanned ground vehides as a key component of the modernization of the military and believe that we're well positioned," Lloyd told National Defense. "It is clearly just a matter of determining and expanding the applications of these robots."

IRobot is also trying to market its defense robots to other industries. For instance, its Packbot and Warrior robots were widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan for bomb disposal, but also can be used in nuclear facilities for standard maintenance. …

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