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With the launch of the Warrior, a large wheeled robot with a hefty mechanical arm, military robots just got significantly larger and more adaptable. The robot rides on caterpillar tracks like a tank. It can climb stairs and cover rough terrain, and perform tasks ranging from the delicate (opening car doors) to the destructive (smashing car windows) with its two-meter-long mechanical arm.

Warrior is the latest invention from iRobot, the Bedford, Massachusetts, company best known for the Roomba robotic vacuum, and its line of remote-control PackBots, used by U.S. combat forces to disable improvised explosive devices and perform other dangerous tasks. The robot could be weaponized—in one test it launched a rocket that trailed explosives behind it to clear mines or other obstacles (see video).

Warrior, at just over 450 pounds, including its arm, is more than five times as heavy and much larger and stronger than a PackBot. That means Warrior can be much more of a generalist, says Tim Trainer, iRobot’s vice president of operations for government and industrial robots. “With the small robots, you really have to optimize them for specific missions. With Warrior, you can provide more flexibility.”

Packbot is designed to be carried like a backpack. Warrior is far too big, being just under a meter long, and standing a little over half a meter tall with its arm folded down. The robot’s electric motor gives it a top speed of eight miles per hour (12.9 kilometers per hour) and enough power to pull a large car. The robot’s tracks and “flippers” allow it to climb over obstacles half a meter in height, and to rear up and reach its arm up to 3.5 meters from the ground. The arm can lift more than 150 pounds (68 kilograms).

Two prototypes of the robots, without fully polished hardware and software, were sent to explore damaged buildings at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the nuclear accident last year. Various Warrior prototypes have been seen at trade shows over the last few years, but only now, after extensive testing, has the design been finalized. Warriors are now ready to enter manufacturing and can be ordered, iRobot says, although it doesn’t yet have any orders to announce.

Warrior is controlled using iRobot’s Aware 2 software and—like the company’s other ground robots—operated remotely using an Xbox controller. The driver sees the view from up to six cameras on the robot’s chassis, arm, and gripper.

Trainer says that a Warrior could be used for everything from search and rescue—for example, lifting aside rubble—to more delicate maneuvers, such as opening a car door to investigate a suspect package. Other attachments, such as x-ray equipment or firefighting gear, will also be made available.

Workers at Fukushima Daiichi didn’t have the benefit of any special equipment, but still managed to use the robot to clean up radiation-contaminated rooms to make it safe for humans to enter, says Trainer. “They duct-taped a vacuum cleaner onto the arm to suck up the radioactive dust.” 

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Tom Simonite IT Editor, Software & Hardware

I’m MIT Technology Review’s IT editor for hardware and software and enjoy a diverse diet of algorithms, Internet, and human-computer interaction with chips on the side. Working in our San Francisco office, I cover new ideas about what computers can do for us, whether they spring from tech... continue »

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