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Funding Robotics in The War Years

All's fair in love and war. Just don't send a dolphin to do a robot's job.

That was the lesson learned during the early days of the Iraq war when the military sent in four dolphins equipped with cameras and sensors to scout around the harbor for submerged mines and other nasty devices.

"The story is that one of the four trained dolphins deployed in Iraq met a wild dolphin and swam off," said John Leonard, an associate professor of mechanical and ocean engineering at MIT and an expert in underwater robotics.

Government groups like the Defense Advanced Research Planning Agency (DARPA) and Office of Naval Research have since learned to trust robots more than computer-enhanced flippers, and spent a great deal of time and money on projects that target the military use of robots and remote-control systems.

A few of these systems and prototypes were on display at a recent emerging technology and robotics conference at Boston University.

These range from underwater robot sleds that cruise the bottom looking for mines to lightweight briefcase-size flying robots that are tossed in the air and zip around an urban setting to sneak up on the enemy.

There are even bird-size flying "perch and stare" robots that can hop from building-to-building, deposit sensors on a ledge and fly off to the next building, said Stephen Welby, director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office.

Remote control planes and robots have been used by the military since World War II. It is only in the last year or two, however, that robots have assumed a major role in the military's Future Combat Systems plans, explained Colin Angle, CEO and co-founder of iRobot, a Massachusetts company that is working closely with the government on robots and network-centric warfare.

Up to 3,600 robotic systems will be eventually deployed, he noted, including unmanned vehicles, robot-controlled submarines and a four-legged machine called "Big Dog" that can tag alongside a soldier to carry equipment and is able to recover from swift kicks in the rear.

BU is one of a number of Massachusetts colleges receiving research money from DARPA, the Office of Naval Warfare and other military agencies to develop and expand the use of robots on the battlefield.

Supporters of this research include Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who have channeled money to BU's Photonics Center to fund a project to develop laser-carrying robots that can instantly follow the sound of a gunshot back to a sniper hidden in the brush.

Called RedOwl, or Robot Enhanced Detection Outpost with Lasers, the project has also included the use of networked systems that can quickly turn toward a gunshot, use cameras to zoom in on a suspected enemy and direct opposing fire back at the enemy.

"Development has moved from Generation Two to Generation Three machines in just eight months," said Glenn Thoren, deputy director of BU's Photonics Center, which previously developed stealth technology for Raytheon.

Other robotic systems are designed to crawl through spider holes to sniff our Iraqi insurgents, or use thermal systems to tell if someone touched a doorknob recently.

Challenges in developing robots for warfare and biological sentry duties include locomotion, mapping and navigation, manipulation, motion planning and object recognition, explained MIT's robot honcho Leonard.

There are also some obvious problems in testing these systems in the real world without attracting too much attention.

Leonard and his crew, for example, have been playing around with a fleet of robot-controlled kayaks in Boston's Charles River that may result in unmanned systems that monitor and protect liquefied natural gas tankers entering Boston Harbor.

One excursion caught the attention of a passing helicopter news team that filmed the strange site and later presented it on the evening news.