I almost crash into a truck, at first. I can turn on a dime and accelerate like a tiny nitrous-oxide-fueled bat out of hell—even though I'm holding a 10-pound pipe bomb, 30 percent of my body weight. I don't know what I'm doing, really. But by the time I get to the truck to plant the bomb, it's easy. I know exactly what to do.
It wasn't a live pipe bomb. And the truck I "bombed" wasn't on a city street. It was in iRobot's test yard in Bedford, Massachusetts. And my body wasn't my own flesh and blood. It was iRobot's 310 SUGV. But our minds and bodies were one. At least after a minute or two of almost running into things, because all I wanted to do was floor it and see how fast my robo-avatar could zip along the rocky terrain.
"I know it's a lot to take in," said Paul Smith, my trainer, "but in two minutes you'll be a pro." He was right. I scouted out a pipe bomb, picked it up, and planted it under a truck in less than five minutes. That's the true genius of these robots—if they weren't incredibly intuitive, they would never be used. And that's not theoretical. Earlier generations of bomb defusing robots sat around in the Middle East gathering dust because they simply weren't practical to use in a high-pressure situation. You don't have time to muck around with controls when you're being shot at, or when there's literally a ticking time-bomb you have to defuse.
The 310 SUGV's arm isn't entirely unlike our own. It has a shoulder joint, an elbow, a wrist, and a gripper. It's an excellent manipulator. It's also strong enough that it can do pull-ups until the battery runs out. There are also flippers that raise it up and down, four cameras you can switch between, and some pre-set poses. It sounds like it'd require a dashboard as complex as a Boeing 747's to control, but iRobot stumbled upon an incredibly intuitive interface that already existed: an Xbox 360 controller.
The Xbox controller was perfect for a number of reasons. It's something a lot of young troops were already familiar with, for starters. (See? Call of Duty can prepare you for real war.) It's also light, tough, ergonomic, and there are just enough buttons on it to eliminate the need for additional keystrokes on a computer.
Everything on the screen is intuitive, too. You can change perspective by switching between the drive cam, chassis cam, rear cam, and manipulation cam (which also has zoom controls). In the top right corner there's a graphic of a snail, a turtle, or a rabbit to let you know if you're in slow, medium, or fast mode. In the bottom left corner there's an incredibly useful 3D model of the robot, that lets you see exactly how you are oriented so you don't put the robot off-balance and teeter into oblivion.
The system is compact. All you really need is a laptop and the controller. Or when you're in the field, you can leave the laptop in your backpack and use a single-eye monocole heads up display (HUD). It's some serious future noise, Universal Soldier-style, squeezing all the video and information you would see on the laptop screen into a single lens. It's trickier to drive that way, but if somebody's shooting at you, I think you'll appreciate the added situational awareness. If you're allergic to sci-fi, there's also a heads down display, a small screen mounted on the controller itself.
Although they're already incredible machines, in iRobot's next-gen bots I want to see stereoscopic cameras. This is actually the type of situation that begs for 3D—the only thing that was tough about completing my minor act of domestic robo-terrorism was getting a sense of depth. How close is something, really? You don't want to be guessing when it's something that might explode. NASA's new rover, Curiosity, uses 3D cameras for precisely this reason.
It was freezing in that trailer, but I kept finding excuses to keep going. "Oh, let me just drive though this pipe real quick, to see how it behaves in a confined area." Then, "Let me just see how it goes up these stairs." I wanted to use it to open a bottle of beer. That's how I'd want to chill out after an intense bombing mission, anyway. I'm sure it can, even if I didn't get the chance. Something about beer not mixing with robots that cost more than some of my favorite organs.
Video by Jeremiah Hair and Woody Allen Jang.
The Bots of War is a multi-day series on iRobot's lesser-known and more incredible little machines that defuse bombs, plant C4 and wage all-out war on our behalf.