Robots on patrol are keeping sports fans safer

The World
The PackBot performs bomb disposal for troops and first responders. The company iRobot recently sold 30 units to Brazilian authorities to prepare for the upcoming World Cup and Summer Olympics.

Let’s say there’s a suspicious looking package.  Rather than send in a person to check things out, send in a robot. Or rather, toss in a robot.

Tim Trainer, vice president of robotic products international with the company iRobot in Bedford, Massachusetts, hurls a small five-pound robot, called the FirstLook, through the air. It lands with a thud then goes scooting along the floor to complete its mission.

“Its base sensor is four cameras, every 90 degrees a camera on that,” said Trainer. “So you can throw it into a room, a SWAT team can get a full 360-degree perspective of what they’re entering pretty quickly.”

The small robot is designed to be thrown 15 feet and land on hard concrete. If the small robot senses a problem, the bomb squad can then send in a larger robot, like the PackBot, capable of picking up, moving, even dismantling a bomb.  

The PackBot looks a bit like the animated Wall-E from the Disney movie, scooting along using driving belts like a small tractor. A long arm extends from its base with a camera and a gripper, which can pick up a bomb and move it to a safer location. 

The company recently sold 30 PackBots, which weigh 50 to 60 pounds, to Brazil to be used at the upcoming World Cup and Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. They company’s largest customer has been the US military, but they’ve also sold robots to civil defense forces throughout the US and worldwide. The company is one of a handful selling robots built for defense.

Not to denigrate this highly-sophisticated and expensive gadgetry – PackBots sell for between $100,000 and $150,000 depending on how they’re outfitted – but for the sake of explaining, watching a tactician picking up a dummy bomb reminded me of the arcade game where kids drop a pincher hook and try to pluck a stuffed animal out of a glass box. Much higher stakes here though, of course.

Robots like this were also used last year in the hours and days following the Boston Marathon bombing for things like investigating suspicious packages.

Sergeant Bill Qualls, the bomb squad commander for the Massachusetts State Police, says the robots will again be at the ready. Qualls fits the part of a bomb squad leader, with a square cut jaw and flat top haircut. He’s the guy you want protecting you, but he can’t reveal too much about how they’ll be doing it. I asked how many robots will be along the marathon route.

“I guess in general, we could say more than one and less than a hundred,” he said.

He added though: they’ll have enough to get the job done.

“We can forward deploy, we can remotely deploy a robotic platform to get eyes on a potential threat. And once we get eyes on that threat, we can start formulating our plan, our approach, how are we going to do deal with that problem?” said Qualls.

These robots don’t just keep members of the bomb squad out of the danger zone. Jim McGee, a former FBI agent now with the security consulting firm the Soufan Group, said spectators in places like Brazil should feel safer knowing the authorities have robots at their disposal.  

“To me, thinking in terms of a fan going to one of the soccer matches at the World Cup, it would give me some reassurance in terms of their [Brazilian security forces] preparedness,” said McGee.

But robots can only do so much – for example, they wouldn’t have prevented the bombs from going off in Boston last year. Still, McGee said robots are getting more sophisticated and will soon help target suspected bombers.

“Not just the backpack that’s been left some place, but actually an individual that may be wearing a suicide vest and is getting ready to detonate themselves in a crowded area,” said McGee.

Robots can already sniff out toxic chemicals, as well as biological and radiological agents. If you want further proof that the robots work, just visit the iRobot lab and Tim Trainer. They have showcases of their products that have been blown up on the job.

Trainer said, “It really is motivating to our workforce of, ‘Hey, here’s a robot that got blown up, instead of a soldier or a sailor or marine that got blown up.’” 

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