Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When 'I Robot' Becomes 'We Robot'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When 'I Robot' Becomes 'We Robot'

Article excerpt

It sounds like classic sci-fi: Robots, linked by a common network, roam the land. When one unit discovers something, they all know it instantly. They use artificial intelligence to carry out their mission.

Soon, such marching orders will be real, carried out by robot groups known as "swarms" or "hives." For example:

* Last month, South Korea's Defense Ministry announced that it was planning to spend up to $1.9 billion to deploy robots along its border with North Korea. The robots would be used mainly for surveillance, although some could be armed. The effort might allow South Korea to remove some of its troops from along the 150-mile- long demilitarized zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, a defense ministry representative told the Associated Press.

* iRobot, a Burlington, Mass., company that makes military robots along with its popular domestic robot, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, operates perhaps the largest robot swarm in the world. About 100 experimental units operate as a team and have taught at least one important lesson: Real-life robots need to be reminded to recharge themselves. That's led to just such a feature on the Roomba, which now returns to its charging base when its battery fades.

* The United States Army is developing a Future Combat System (FCS) that includes a close network of troops and ground and aerial unmanned robots. The robots would communicate with one another and coordinate their activities based on the mission assigned to them.

"We're very interested" in hive or "swarm" technology, said Dennis Muilenburg, FCS program manager at Boeing, which is being paid $21 billion by the Army to oversee hundreds of contractors working on the FCS program.

The FCS family of ground and aerial robots now under development would include a 25-pound "flying fan" that could be carried in a soldier's backpack, Mr. Muilenburg explained at a robotics conference in Cambridge, Mass., last week. When launched, it would survey the battlefield by hovering overhead or perching on a rooftop. A combat unit of the near future, he said, might consist of 3,000 soldiers, 900 vehicles, and "hundreds of robots" - some of them armed - all closely networked.

The US military will deploy networked robots "within five years," predicts Helen Greiner, cofounder and chairman of iRobot.

Frontline Robotics, in Ottawa, is working with a South Korean firm, DoDAAM Systems Ltd., in a bid to supply robots for the DMZ defense project. The Canadian company plans to offer a line of security robots that possess a significant level of individual autonomy and "hive" intelligence, says Richard Lepack, president and chief executive officer of Frontline, which merged last week with White Box Robotics in Pittsburgh.

In a test last month, two of the company's robots were able to decide for themselves which should enter a narrow passageway first. …

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