Military Buys Tiny ‘FirstLook’ Droppable, Flipping Robots in Bulk

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The term “military robot” brings to mind the dystopian battlefields of the Terminator movies, filled with shiny humanoids blasting each other to smithereens. The latest robot acquired by the U.S. military, however, has its roots in a vacuum cleaner.

That’s because iRobot — the company most famous for the Roomba — just sold the military’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization $1.5 million dollars worth of its FirstLook robots.

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This isn’t iRobot’s first deal with the military: There are currently 4,500 of the company’s 60-pound PackBots in service. What makes the FirstLook special is its size. The robot weighs in at only 5 pounds, easily light enough for a soldier to carry in his or her pack. It’s also designed so that you don’t have to be a technical genius to operate it.

“It’s designed for the infantry,” says Tim Trainer, interim president of iRobot’s government and industrial business unit and a 30-year Navy veteran. “They can be up and running in minutes. An old guy like me jumped on it and was driving it around the office almost immediately.”

The controls should be intuitive to any soldier who has booked considerable hours playing a game like Halo or Call of Duty. It’s meant to be tossed into potentially dangerous areas, where it can zip around with its four cameras and provide its operator a good view of what’s going on.

It’s also pretty tough, able to survive 15-foot drops, right itself when flipped over and even climb steps up to eight inches high. In the future, they’ll also be capable of two-way audio communication, which could be useful during rescue operations.

The military ordered more than 100 of them this week; they’ll see service later this year and be evaluated by the soldiers using them. Afterwards, iRobot will tweak them according to their suggestions and should be able to pump them out for between $10,000-$20,000 apiece, depending on the number ordered.

Sure, there’s nothing jaw-dropping about FirstLook, but it goes to show that right now the military doesn’t need futuristic battle-bots — it just needs simple robots that function properly and help soldiers avoid harm.

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