iRobot PakBot, minus the REDOWL box
iRobot's PackBot gets a hearing aide

Unmanned vehicles seem to be all the rage these days with the US military. The United States military is currently working on a centralized control unit that makes it easier for operators to manage multiple vehicles at once. Now, the Army is looking to enhance its iRobot PackBot which has been in service since 2002 in Afghanistan.

The 44-pound iRobot PackBot, which comes from the same manufacturer as the pesky little Scooba and Roomba household cleaners, can be controlled via a fiber optic connection or via radio. Inside its belly are a wide array of sensors and a GPS locator which are controlled using a version of the Linux operating system. The PackBot can navigate rocky terrain, sand, mud and even stairs with its "QuickFlip" rotating flippers and can travel at a top speed of 5MPH.

The PackBot is about to get even more useful in combat situations with the help of REDOWL (Robot Enhanced Detection Outpost with Lasers). The REDOWL system is contained with a small box that sits atop of the PackBot and can detect enemy gunfire in deadly urban combat.

The REDOWL system is able to distinguish enemy AK-47 gunfire from friendly M-16 gunfire or even pistols. Using its six onboard microphones, the REDOWL is able to pinpoint the location of a sniper and transfer that data to the operator or to an unmanned MAV (Micro Air Vehicle) which would loiter over the target area. The MAV would in turn relay that information to troops complete with the sniper's exact location on an area map. The PackBot's operator can stay back at a safe distance and send the robot into the line of fire with the help of 300x zoom cameras.

Developed jointly by Boston University and iRobot, the REDOWL system uses biometric microphone placement and neural networking to operate along the lines of animal hearing. The REDOWL system has been able to localize 95% of gunshots in recent testing and correctly classify each one. It was then able to calculate its distance from the target with a laser rangefinder from as far away as 100 meters.

The current PackBot - REDOWL combination cannot return fire at the moment but Glen Thoren, the deputy director of the Boston University Photonics Center, notes that “It’s obvious that this technology would work well with an armed platform."

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