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Portable bots get cattleprod zapguns, hover capability

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Aficionados of the killer-robot world barely get time to catch their breath these days. Yesterday was no exception, with two military droids making their debut.

First up was iRobot, makers of the famed "Roomba" autonomous vacuum cleaner - and also the "Packbot" tracked crawler-droid, known to the US Army as SUGV and noted for its XBox-360-like controller. The Packbot, however, was lacking in one key capability - weaponry.

Taste electric justice, felon! Bzzt! Aiee

The Israelis have already been happy to equip a similar crawler-bot with an Uzi 9mm submachinegun, and UK "Wheelbarrows" have in the past been armed with 12-bore automatic shotguns - albeit more intended for shooting open cars than mowing down foolish fleshies daring to stand against the machine army.

This type of firepower was seen as too extreme by the iRobot designers, however. They may also have thought it desirable to ask questions and yet still shoot first. As a result, they've teamed up with Taser, suppliers of electric cattleprod zap-guns to the world's police forces. A Taser gun launches a miniature flying prod module trailing a power wire behind it: when the contact hits a luckless miscreant, a battery in the gun butt delivers a high-voltage electric shock down the wire which knocks him thrashing to the floor.

Obviously, this isn't exactly jolly for the target, and it's occasionally alleged that Tasers have caused people to die of heart attacks or suffer other health consequences. Advocates of electro-enforcement, however, point out that on average cattleprod capture has to be more fun than getting shot, and arguably is better for you than being maced, gassed or bludgeoned into submission - which covers most of the other options open to coppers tackling a dangerous or out-of-control villain.

Anyhow, iRobot reckon that the Taser is the choice of the droid enforcer in the know. In a release dated yesterday, the firm says it will "develop new robots that can remotely engage, incapacitate and control dangerous suspects with integrated TASER electronic control devices."

Apparently, "iRobot and TASER together have developed a working proof-of-concept model – iRobot® PackBot Explorer™ with TASER X26 device – to showcase the first robot of its kind with an on-board, integrated TASER payload."

The US Army's amazing dalek prototype

The droid shock-prod gunslinger might well be able to quell the chemically disadvantaged and/or unarmed classes of "dangerous suspects," so it could be useful. (We suggest the brand name "Shock Trooper™" and the tag "the most current bot in law enforcement".) It's fairly hard, though, to see it presenting a big problem for - let us say - a reasonably alert stickup man with a shotgun, let alone an insurgent with a rocket-launcher.

It might be possible in future to enhance the weaponry somewhat, without reverting to old-school firearms. Arizona company Ionatron has funding to develop "directed lightning" raygun-style electro-blasters, which could potentially leave malefactors twitching in the dirt without benefit of wire or flying prod. Ionatron says that lethal settings will be on offer, too. (That said, Ionatron has a rather suspicious air about it lately.)

Even if the Tasers can be improved, however, a relatively normal droid like the Packbot will still struggle in a firefight against comparatively agile human gunmen.

But there's more nimble stuff on offer. Flight International reports that the US Army's flying-wastebasket style hover-bot - officially known as the Micro Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - is now in action. This remarkable machine flies using a ducted fan (essentially a propellor enclosed in a cylindrical pipe). The hover-droid and its ground control station can be carried in a couple of backpacks, and it can - according to Honeywell's promotional video (Flash & compliant firewall required) go at almost 60 mph and as high as 10,500 feet.

The Micro UAV weighs just 16lb and can carry only video cameras for now. According to Flight, the initial wastebasket-sized job is being used to check for roadside bombs or ambushes in Iraq. But makers Honeywell describe it as a "scalable family of systems," suggesting that they might have something on the same lines but a bit bigger up their sleeves.

It presumably can't be long before all these ideas are combined, and a larger - dustbin rather than wastebasket sized - hoverdroid takes to the sky, tooled up with deadly lightning cannons.

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