Taking men and women out of the so-called kill-chain was a primary goal during the war in Iraq. The idea was to reduce risk by replacing people in certain situations with machines that could gather intelligence. Since information gathering and risk reduction are perennial business issues as well, many of these same technologies are likely to make their way into private industry.
In Iraq, the military used smart robots and smart drones to reduce danger to personnel. In the future, perhaps another DARPA-supported technology called Smart Dust will reduce casualties and gather information even more effectively.
As conceived by University of California, Berkeley, professor Kris Pister, Smart Dust is an "autonomous sensing and communications device in a cubic millimeter" package. He has not achieved this ideal size yet, but the goal is to package inside one cubic millimeter a light chemical or biochemical sensor, power supply and circuitry, a bidirectional communication device, and a programmable processor.
Imagine a plane sprinkling Smart Dust over a threatened space. These sophisticated flecks would be so light that they would stay afloat and monitor enemy troop movements or the presence of biological and chemical weapons. On the home front, Smart Dust might take up residence in inaccessible parts of a nuclear power plant. In more mundane applications, Smart Dust might be used to track packages from manufacturer to box to palette to truck to distribution center to retailer.
In a recent test using Smart Dust technology, Pister was able to control a miniature drone plane, about eight inches long, that flew at 60 mph for 18 minutes carrying a video camera for live feeds back to headquarters.
Even more down-to-earth, a DARPA program called Tactical Mobile Robotics is developing a portable robotic system capable of operating in urban situations, according to Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot in Burlington, Mass.
The PackBot robot, created by iRobot, is a waterproof, 40-pound nonhumanoid capable of climbing stairs, righting itself from an upside-down position, and surviving a 10-foot drop onto concrete. It looks something like a miniaturized tank, stands 8 inches tall and two feet wide and carries a payload of sensors that includes two forward-looking cameras and one rear-view camera, IEEE 802.11b wireless connectivity, and an Intel Pentium III 800MHz processor.
Deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the PackBot entered caves, scouted around, and reported back to a human operator outfitted in a wearable computer.
In the nonmilitary arena, PackBot has already been put to the test in hostage situations and is being used by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the Milford, Conn., police department. PackBot can go into a suspected drug lab where the risk of explosion is great. Outfitted with chemical and bio sensors, the robot can be sent to search a hazardous atmosphere.
Angle says PackBot can also be operated over the Internet, allowing companies to have a physical avatar -- a robot -- as a company representative. Angle suggested, for example, a U.S.-based company might want to use a robotic representative in a factory in southern China because of the danger of SARs. Someday these kinds of robots might even bring back house calls by doctors.