Feeds

Roomba robot maker to build DARPA squidge-droids

Flexible bot-probes to penetrate tight backdoors

High performance access to file storage

Famous robotics company iRobot - maker of the noted Roomba autonomous floor-cleaner and supplier of war-bots to the US military - has announced a radical new development contract. The company is to create a "soft" robot able to wriggle its way through "openings smaller than its actual structural dimensions".

It almost goes without saying that the $3.3m in military blobotics funding comes from DARPA, the Pentagon boffin collective which is to the established military-technological paradigm what stun grenades are to tea-parties.

“During military operations it can be important to gain covert access to denied or hostile space,” said Dr Mitchell Zakin of DARPA, suggesting that the squashy machines are intended to penetrate physical security covertly.

“We believe that a new class of soft, flexible, meso-scale mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their dimensions to perform various tasks will be quite valuable".

“Consistently [tackling] challenges with robots has made us a trusted DARPA partner,” said Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of iRobot, offering a shrewd hint as to the best way of becoming friends with the radical military brainboxes.

The new flexi-penetration bot programme has been dubbed ChemBots. It was originally announced last year, as a modification to a wider enabling-techniques push, but nothing further was made public until now.

DARPA requires that the final $3.3m prototype machine:

  1. Travel a distance
  2. Traverse an arbitrary-shaped opening much smaller than the largest characteristic dimension of the ChemBot
  3. Reconstitute size, shape, and functionality after traversing the opening
  4. Travel a distance again
  5. Perform a function using the embedded payload

The Phase One version, which iRobot are now embarked upon, should be "approximately the size (but not necessarily the form-factor) of a regulation softball" which can move 5 metres in 20 minutes, pass through a 1cm opening and reassume its original shape in 15 seconds. Roughly speaking, then, we're talking about a cricket-ball sized job which can get through a keyhole. This might open up a few backdoors, in a security sense.

DARPA don't care how this is done, but they do note that "nature provides many examples of ChemBot functionality ... mice, octopi, and insects readily traverse openings barely larger than their largest 'hard' component".

The paradigm-punishing boffins reckon that the squidgy mechanoids could make use of "gel-solid phase transitions", "shape-memory", "magneto-rheological materials" or - perhaps rather more credibly - "geometric transitions, eg, folding". That last might be the one to bet on, perhaps combined with miniature, deflatable balloon tyres.

One might also note that payload and function are agreeably non-specific, and that many explosives - just for instance - are available in liquid or gel form. It would probably be within the rules of the game for the robot to simply blow up or release a gas in order to "perform a function".

But iRobot is an imaginative company, and makes lovely robots. (Even if the machines aren't all that good at cleaning floors.) It can probably come up with something a bit more cunning. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Elon Musk's LEAKY THRUSTER gas stalls Space Station supply run
Helium seeps from Falcon 9 first stage, delays new legs for NASA robonaut
Solar-powered aircraft unveiled for round-the-world flight
It's going to be a slow and sleepy flight for the pilots
Russian deputy PM: 'We are coming to the Moon FOREVER'
Plans to annex Earth's satellite with permanent base by 2030
LOHAN's Punch and Judy show relaunches Thursday
Weather looking good for second pop at test flights
Saturn spotted spawning new FEMTO-MOON
Icy 'Peggy' looks to be leaving the outer rings
Discovery time for 200m WONDER MATERIALS shaved from 4 MILLENNIA... to 4 years
Alloy, Alloy: Boffins in speed-classification breakthrough
India's GPS alternative launches second satellite
Closed satnav system due to have all seven birds aloft by 2016
Curiosity finds not-very-Australian-shaped rock on Mars
File under 'messianic pastries' and move on, people
Top Secret US payload launched into space successfully
Clandestine NRO spacecraft sets off on its unknown mission
prev story

Whitepapers

Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
HP ArcSight ESM solution helps Finansbank
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.