Less than a month after the U.S. Army ordered 1,100 micro-robots for $13.9 million, the Department of Defense placed a $1 million order for lightweight robots from iRobot Corp., it was announced Tuesday.

The order came from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), which operates under the umbrella of the DOD. The purpose of the organization is to detect and eliminate IED threats. It ordered 105 FirstLook robots for $1.5 million — iRobot’s first “significant order” of the small bots.

Throw ‘em, drop ‘em, kick ‘em — these robots can take a beating. The iRobot 110 FirstLook weighs five pounds. It can be dropped from 15 feet and climb over obstacles up to seven inches high. The robot also corrects itself should it flip over. It is equipped with four cameras to survey from all angles.

To help protect soldiers, the robots can survey rooftops, go through houses and peer around corners, plus provide intelligence and clear the path in numerous other dangerous scenarios.

As badass as these robots are, the order also amounts to a hefty sum of taxpayer dollars. At $12,636 per micro-robot, the U.S. Army got a better deal last month than the JIEDDO did more recently. The JIEDDO order breaks down to about $14,285 per FirstLook robot.

Mashable reached out to iRobot and the DOD to find out more about these machines, and we’ll let you know what we hear back.

Robots can save lives in more ways than one — from military operations to nanorobotics being developed with the hope of curing cancer. Some critics, however, say these advances could also lead to human extinction.

But for now, such technological advances can decrease human fatalities in combat. They can also break world records.

What do you think about the U.S. using robots in combat? Share your opinions below.

Image courtesy of iRobot Corp.

More About: military, Pentagon, Robot, robotics, U.S.

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Showing-off 18 new human-hand-like maneuvers, DARPA’s Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) project reached the second milestone in its development, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced Friday.

In a video posted on March 1, ARM displays its dexterity. It can unlock a door with a key and turn the handle, grab a power drill and pick-up other tools. ARM completes 18 different “human-like” functions in the clip — “grasping and manipulation tasks using vision, force, and tactile sensing with full autonomy — no active human control.”

The goal of the project is to create an autonomous robot that functions better than human-operated robots. ARM’s creators not only want it to function with less human intervention, but also complete a wider variety of tasks than other robots.

“The program will attempt to reach this goal by developing software and hardware that enables robots to autonomously grasp and manipulate objects in unstructured environments, with humans providing only high-level direction,” notes the website.

ARM has an arm, hand, neck and head sensors. Check out this video to see it in action:

The bot doesn’t use the tools with much force — at least not yet. It picks up a shovel, but its grasp is somewhat flimsy. ARM grabs a power drill and drills partway into wood, but not with as much gusto that a robot created for military or other expeditions might have to possess. But even with the current functions it has, ARM still could be useful to humans in dangerous situations.

Once ARM is complete, it could serve a variety of purposes. The DARPA’s website says, “Current robotic manipulation systems save lives and reduce casualties, but are limited when adapting to multiple mission environments and need burdensome human interaction and lengthy time durations for completing tasks.”

Other robotics are used to prevent casualties in military operations and do myriad of dangerous tasks.

You can check out more information about ARM and see some cool visuals here.

What uses do you envision for this robot? Tell us in the comments.

Photo courtesy of thearmrobot.com/gallery.

More About: DARPA, robotics, robots

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The roads in Nevada are ready for driverless robot cars. Earlier this month, Nevada’s Legislative Commission approved testing of autonomous vehicles on the state’s roadways. The cars will be identifiable by a red license plate.

In fact, any company can test its driverless system in Nevada; Google just happened to be the first to jump on the opportunity. Google’s system can be installed on any make of vehicle. The company has been working on their driverless car system for a while and received a patent late last year.

“Self-driving cars have the potential to significantly increase driving safety,” a Google spokesperson told Mashable. “We applaud Nevada for building a thoughtful framework to enable safe, ongoing testing of the technology and to anticipate the needs and best interests of Nevada citizens who may own vehicles with self-driving capabilities one day.”

Even though the cars are driverless, they cannot be tested without two operators inside. Once the vehicles are shown to be safely operated with just one driver, the cars will receive green license plates.

Tom Jacobs, chief public information officer at the Nevada DMV, said this driverless system is “like cruise control on steroids.” Jacobs said he did a radio interview recently in which he was asked if other drivers will ever feel the need to flip-off these cars. His response: no need.

“It had no bad habits,” he said of the system.

Jacobs said he rode in one of the driverless cars. When the road is not mapped ahead, the car may give control to the driver after a female voice says, “please drive.” If the driver does not take control, the car simply pulls over. There is also a display in front of the passenger seat that shows exactly what the car is seeing outside. This feature is for testing purposes only. Jacobs said the ride was so smooth, he couldn’t tell when the driver or car was operating the vehicle besides hearing the automated female voice.

“There will never be any crashes,” Jacobs said.

SEE ALSO: Tackling Self-Driving Cars’ Biggest Questions [VIDEO]
In the future, it’s possible automakers will offer this system already installed in vehicles. Drivers without the system built-in may be able to have their cars retrofitted. Jacobs envisioned a world where one day you can press a button on your cell phone, have a car pull up to your house, put your dog in it and send it to the veterinarian.

Jacobs said Google is also testing its driverless cars “quasi-legally” in California, since there is no written rule specifically allowing or forbidding driverless cars. However, Jacobs clearly has a stake in ensuring Nevada is a hub of testing this budding technology.

Regarding the California testing, Google says, “We have received several opinions from outside counsels who are experts in transportation law. All indicated that the testing in California is 100% legal as the safety driver is in control of the car at all times and is responsible for the operation of the vehicle. The testing involves having two people in the car at all times.”

“Nevada is the first state to embrace what is surely the future of automobiles,” Department of Motor Vehicles Director Bruce Breslow said in a statement posted on the state’s DMV website on Feb. 15. “These regulations establish requirements companies must meet to test their vehicles on Nevada’s public roadways as well as requirements for residents to legally operate them in the future.”

There are several other states that have pending legislation that would allow driverless cars on public roadways.

Would a driverless car make your life easier? How much would you pay for one? Tell us in the comments.

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto, Mlenny

More About: cars, driverless, Google, robotics

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In some instances, it’s a good thing when a robot can replace you at work. A team of professors and student researchers are exploring ways robots can be used instead of humans for dangerous missions, like deep-sea diving in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of an oil spill.

Mathematician and Associate Professor at Louisiana State University Michael Malisoff and the team he is working with are creating robots that can act somewhat autonomously, working in the place of humans in harmful places — oil spills and mosquito-infested lagoons. Instead of a human doing the dangerous work, the bots could “detect dangerous substances in dangerous places” and relay the information back to a human worker on shore.

“These robots are operating in potential hazardous situations,” Malisoff says. “It keeps the human in the loop but out of harm’s way.”

The team of students is directed by Fumin Zhang, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. Malisoff is collaborating with Zhang for the project.

After the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, Malisoff, who specializes in mathematics dealing with control processes that apply to robotics, tapped the National Science Foundation and asked if self-directing robots might be useful to explore the damage. They answered in the affirmative and awarded the team a one-year grant to work on the bots and find out how the machines could be used in the future. The robots could be used to monitor the biological impact of such a spill.

“The main novelty of the research was in our use of a technique called ‘automatic control,’” Malisoff says. “The robot is able to sense where it is.”

There are four robots total; three can go underwater. ROV Beta is the name of one of the underwater robots. It can reach a depth of 100 meters and has a battery life of 10-12 hours, running on a battery bank on shore.

A feedback sensor on the robot allows it to determine its current location and the desired route to get to its destination. Unlike a remote-controlled car, this robot can figure out its current location using built-in commands and decide its next course of action using tracking control features. Underwater robots like these still require human intervention and the team doesn’t expect to make them completely autonomous, but with some fine-tuning the robots can spare people from doing dangerous work.

“Typically with marine surveys, the water is too vast, so it has to do some routing,” he explained. “Feedback control helps it put itself back on course if tides take it off course.”

The team had a test run with the bots in the Gulf of Mexico. The underwater robot was attached to a leash on the shore and would navigate into the water.

Right now, the robots don’t communicate as quickly as the team would like them to. Murky waters and the density of the ocean cause the robots to occasionally be unresponsive to feedback — like when you’re in your car and the GPS stops working when you go through a tunnel, Malisoff explained.

“Overall, we had promising results, but there’s always room for improvement,” he says. “It’s very much a work in progress.”

Three of the four robots are built by students who are overseen by the team of professors. Right now, the robots are disassembled while the team works to meliorate the problems. But students are busy, Malisoff said. Between other classes and projects, the bots are not being attended to as if it is someone’s full time job. Fortunately, the new grant runs through 2014 and provides funding for theoretical work that makes the robots perform better.

“This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on,” Malisoff says. “I can see this has potential to help people in the Gulf Coast area in case of an oil spill or natural disaster.”

Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech

More About: Autonomous, research, robotics, robots

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If you’ve always wanted to tinker with hardware — up to and including building robots — but didn’t know how to start, Grant Imahara of the science-themed, blow-em-up TV show MythBusters has some advice:

“Anything that’s already broken is fair game! The worst-case scenario is it stays broken. The best-case scenario is you find out how it works or, even better, transform it into something else.”

Hardware hacking, like other kinds of hacking, boils down to getting your hands dirty and possessing a desire to know what makes things tick. And for many hackers, that desire starts at an early age.

“I think it’s something you’re born with — the desire to know how things work inside,” Imahara tells Mashable. “And you can tell your kid is a hardware hacker if none of the Hot Wheels cars have wheels, if the remote control gets take apart on a weekly basis.

“The best thing to do is give them more things to take apart so they can see how things work on the inside. Give them tools, and teach them how to use those tools.”

Imahara, who is hosting a Memorial Day Science Channel special on combat robotics, says he also started hacking at a tender age. “Even when I was young, I would build things with Lego or make ‘robots’ out of cereal boxes — long before I learned metalwork. The desire to build was always there.”

Although Imahara has a degree in electrical engineering, he says the robot-builders he’s met — especially those who take their bots into combat competitions — come from a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds.

“When I started Battle Bots in 1999, the guy sitting next to me was a high school teacher with no robotics experience at all. There were special effects guys, engineers, software guys who just wrote code — all kinds of people who had a desire to build something,” he says. “And they would do it in their garages or even their kitchens…. You don’t need to be an engineer or have your own machine shop.”

Imahara also notes how much the tools for would-be hardware hackers have grown in the past decade or two.

“I remember when I was a kid and I was interested in robots, there was really nothing out there but Erector Sets and Tinker Toys,” he says. “But now there’s such a variety of robotics-specific choices that you can buy off the shelf and get someone building and programming and exploring.”

For older sorts, Imahara also gives a nod to Maker Faire, which he calls “fertile ground … It’s about ideas, and taking those ideas into something physical.”

He recommends taking a trip to Amazon to browse through the many available books on robotics. His own book Kickin’ Bot is a specific how-to guide for building combat robots.

“And these days,” Imahara adds, “you’ve also got the Internet. There are thousands of webpages and open-source guides.”

Image based on photo from Flickr, dahveed

More advice from Imahara on first design.

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Look out everyone, because there’s a gang of miniature, four-rotor electric helicopters that’s figured out how to work together and build a simple structure. This could be just the beginning of what they can do.

Those clever programmers at the GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania have made these quadrotor helicopters autonomous, teaching them how to work together while building things. Heck, most people can’t do that.

The robot builders simply tell the copters which structure to build, and then, according to a GRASP technician, the quadrotors cooperatively “figure out the assembly plan and then build it.” The flying bots even have the ability to go for another attempt if the magnetic parts don’t snap together quite right.

Even though the clever programmers have created simple modules for the helicopters to construct, nevertheless, this is the first glimpse of cooperative flying robot construction on a larger scale. Imagine if these mini copters were scaled up to 100 times their size, putting together skyscrapers, bridges, or the components of Skynet.

Experimentation with these brainy choppers has been going on for a long time. When we saw videos of the quadrotors performing autonomous feats early last year, we were immediately impressed. They were downright aggressive, flying through thin slots and moving hoops with spectacular precision. A few months later, they got even more sophisticated. Now, they’re getting downright scary.

What about it, readers? Should we be afraid yet?

[Via Hacked Gadgets]

More About: Autonomous, GRASP, quadroter, robotics, Skynet, University of Pennsylvania