Robots can't have feelings. But humans develop feelings for them. You know, like R2-D2 in Star Wars. Or like Scooby Doo, a real life small robot that saved the day 19 times. This is his single-tear story.
Scooby Doo was an iRobot PackBot. PackBots are 60-pound, treaded robots that are used for reconnaissance, surveillance, and bomb disposal. They have four cameras, an articulated arm with gripper, and flippers that allow them to go over obstacles such as stairs. They're tough, they're easy to control, and while they are used for domestic bomb disposal, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are where they've really come into their own. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are the number one killer of soldiers there, and PackBots have become one of the best tools EOD (Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal) units in the Middle East have.
Scooby Doo was a damn good robot. During his deployment in Iraq he assisted in the disposal of 17 IEDs, 1 carbomb, and 1 unexploded bomb (which is always a major get for an EOD unit because of the intel they can gather about the bomb's maker). For every successful mission, the soldiers would draw a hashmark on Scooby Doo's head unit, similar to how fighter jet pilots mark the number of enemies they've shot down on the hull of their planes. Scooby became a member of a team with soldiers that relied on each other.
But one day Scooby met his match. Maybe he'd gotten cocky, turned maverick. His ego writing checks his body couldn't cash. We'll never know. But Scooby Doo was killed in Iraq when an IED he was trying to defuse exploded.
Like Luke after R2-D2 saved the day on the Death Star's trench run, the veteran EOD unit member brought Scooby's body into the repair depot at Camp Victory and said "you've got to fix Scooby." The repair tech said that Scooby was beyond repair, but he could have a brand new robot. No, you don't under stand, this soldier insisted, Scooby Doo had be fixed. He did not want some damn new robot—he wanted Scooby Doo back. Scooby Doo was part of the team. He'd saved their lives. It was reported that this veteran soldier was visibly upset.
And this is not uncommon. EOD units have been known to promote their bots to titles such as Staff Sergeant, award them Purple Hearts, and even hold funerals for their fallen brothers in robotic arms. They assign them personalities, dispositions. Some have even taken their robots fishing with them and let them hold the pole. Regardless of whether you call that camaraderie or laziness, I would argue that it's bonding. It's not hard to see where Scooby Doo's team was coming from. If your dog had been critically injured, and you took him to the vet, and the vet said, "Sorry, can't fix him, but how's about a new dog?" you'd tell him to go procreate with himself, your friend is not so easily replaced.
We get attached. This is why you should never name anything that is destined to die. That includes pets and children.
Jokes aside, I'm sure I would have been upset, too. Think about the attachments to technology we form. How many arguments have you been privy to (or part of) that were about which phone or computer is better? Stupid as it sounds, they can get pretty of heated—read our comments section on any iPhone or Android post if you don't believe me. Those are just phones, but we invest ourselves in the technology that plays a major role in our lives. Scooby Doo carried out 19 successful missions, likely saving dozens of lives. How could you not get attached to something like that?
Scooby Doo now resides at iRobot's little on-site museum in Bedford, Mass. He has a plaque dedicated to him, and his head-plate still proudly displays his name and stats: 17 IEDs, 1 car bomb, 1 unexploded bomb. Those are the kind of stats anyone would be proud to have live on after them. Perhaps someone from Scooby's old unit will read this and track him down for a visit to pay his respects. I'd very much like to be a fly on the wall for that.
RIP Scooby Doo, and thank you for the lives you saved.
[Gigantic thanks go out to Tim Trainer, Charlie Vaida, Paul Smith, and Dave Whiting from iRobot, and to Dave Welch from G4 who works on Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan (which is something everyone should watch).]
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.