Navy buying $26m of PackBot robots

Robots that pick up and dispose of bombs seem like a great idea, but do they really work?

Naval Sea Systems Command just announced a $26m buy of bomb disposal robots from iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba home vacuum robot, Defense Industry Daily reports.

Under the terms, iRobot will deliver an additional 213 iRobot PackBot Man Transportable Robotic Systems (MTRS) for use in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus spare parts to repair robots in the field. The new award of $26 million marks the third round of funding by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), bringing the total value of the orders placed to date to more than $43 million.

The US Army is also involved in the MTRS tri-service procurement program, just as the Packbots are one of two robot types approved for use under this program. Foster-Miller, purchased by the British defense research firm QinetiQ in November 2005, also supplies its TALON IV robots to the program, while supporting previous versions in the field like the TALON III. DID covered the entire MTRS program in-depth back in September 2005, including the program structure (which includes the latest iRobot delivery) and the robots involved. A subsequent December 2005 article covered the Bombot, a much smaller and cheaper robot designed as an explicit alternative to MTRS.

But Noah Shachtman at DefenseTech.org says the Navy is pissing money away.

I've never met a bomb squad technician who actually bothered with one of the things. Too flimsy, they all say. Too hard to operate. The Baghdad Bomb Squad used their iRobots to decorate their shop. Not far away, at the U.S. military's central robot depot for Iraq, the iRobots sat on shelves, serenely gathering dust, while Foster-Miller's Talon robots would come back, scarred and in pieces, after being chewed up by a bomb.