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iRobot inks deal for laser-radar droidvision sensors

Now the machines can follow you into the building

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iRobot, provider of ground warbots to the US forces and purveyor of domestic droids to the comfortably off consumer, has struck a deal allowing it to use laser-scanning technology in its future designs. Reports have it that the kit could be in use in 2009; though this would be with the military, not on the company's famous line of autonomous "Roomba" floor-cleaners.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the laser-vision system - also known as "ladar", as it is effectively a laser-light version of radar rather than a camera - is provided by Advanced Scientific Concepts of California. iRobot has also bought shares in ASC, as well as inking the exclusive marketing and technology deal.

The new gear is intended to solve one of the most difficult problems in autonomous ground-mobile machines - that of generating a useable 3D map of what lies ahead. Humans can do a good job of this using stereoscopic 2D vision, but thus far software has struggled to interpret ordinary camera imagery in a way that robots can use. This has tended to mean that robots which rely on cameras as sensors need to be operated remotely by humans; which in turn calls for a high-bandwidth, low-latency datalink and expensive dedicated personnel.

One solution is to use radar, which maps objects in relation to the detector, but even millimetre-wave radar becomes hard to use in the close, cluttered environments which robots must navigate. The ASC systems will use brief pulses of laser light instead of radio or microwaves, thus perhaps allowing autonomous operations inside buildings - an attractive option in iRobot's main markets. The 5-nanosecond pulses will be eye-safe, apparently.

Ladar detection has already been used in this way, perhaps most famously in the DARPA Grand Challenge robot-car competitions where contenders face similar problems to iRobot. However the Grand Challenge vehicle ladars were mostly unsuitable for production, and for the indoor applications iRobot has in mind. ASC's "laser flash" technology, originally developed for aerial mapping, is nearer being ready to go.

iRobot believes it might have ladar on military combat droids in 12 to 18 months, and thereafter on its household machines at some unspecified date.®

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