The Pocket Sized Robotic Scout: a Soldier’s New Best Friend

There are robots to do everything nowadays.  They move pallets, act as a butler and even scoop kitty poo, so it must come as no surprise that robots are heavily involved in military activity.  The big things like aerial drones, bomb detection units, or even robotic armies seem to hog all the press, but here’s a little guy that may have slipped under the radar.  Meet iRobot’s Ember, a pocket-sized companion for the everyday soldier.  No, it’s not capable of saying “hi”, but it does have some pretty cool flipper-thingies.

The coolest thing with flippers since Danny Devito played the penguin
The coolest thing with flippers since Danny Devito played the Penguin

The robot was built for Darpa’s LANDroids program and is intended to be carried by every soldier in the field.  Each Ember is cheap, easy to use, and capable of wirelessly communicating with its brethren so, when a troop of soldiers encounters a suspicious building, only a couple of robots face danger rather than risking human lives.  Each bot has a camera mounted on the body and a pair of flippers, making it able to climb over most any obstacle that the bi-directional treads cannot handle.

These little guys are not just a cool way of not dying, they are also a perfect example of man and machine working together in harmony.  The Ember robot matched with a human soldier is able to combine the intuition and spontaneity of the brain, something robotics designers have yet to recreate in their machines, with the expendability and immortality of a robot.  Ember is able to fearlessly enter any building or enclosed space and look for traps and hostiles.  Best of all, there is no next of kin to notify if the robot happens to fall while protecting its country.Take a look at the video to see Ember in action:

Rumor has it that the target price of the Ember robot is $100 each, which would make it one of the cheaper items that a soldier carries.  These inexpensive scouts are capable of mapping an area in real time, allow soldiers to see terrain before they charge into battle.  The camera allows the soldier to see everything that the robot sees, in effect removing the “home-turf” advantage of the baddies.

Of course, once the hostiles and traps are located and have more than likely already dispatched of poor little Ember, there is still the nagging issue of bringing such vagabonds to justice.  Now, one might think that it would not be a problem to go in there and take them out, but it still puts people in danger and that is less than desirable.  That situation, however, is where technology of the future may come into play.  There are so many possibilities that may transition Ember from scout to assassin, such as leaving cameras or tracers behind, retrieving evidence or firing projectiles.  Even a meat-fisted tactic such as designing a grenade into the robot would allow it to take out targets without hurting friendly soldiers and at $100 a pop, why not?

There’s still quite some time before the army rolls out mechanized infantry units that look like Arnold the Governator, but the idea of putting a stop to war-time casualties is reason enough to develop more capable robotic scouts.  For now, though, it looks as though the troops on the ground will have to make due with Ember the scouting robot, so as to at least they have a good idea as to where the enemy is stationed.  After that, it’s all up to the human soldier.

Andrew Kessel
Andrew Kessel
Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.
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