While tinkering with the devices, the Marshall engineers made a few design changes, making the robot simpler and faster while adding myriad capabilities. They essentially gutted the device and replaced all of its electronics, upgrading from an analog camera to a digital setup, encrypting the controllers and video transmission, as well as significantly increasing the range and adding communications abilities. Despite all of these upgrades, they also managed to simplify the design, providing more plug-and-play sensors and replacing some of the complex electronics with more trouble-free, low-cost components.
When they demonstrated the modified robot to its former owners, the Army was impressed and wanted these design changes reproduced in future models. The Huntsville-based Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation, a local NASA-affiliated nonprofit, helped coordinate this partnership, which involved the transfer of intellectual property between two large government agencies and the contracting of two private companies to carry out the work on a third company’s existing product. Schafer Corporation, also in Huntsville, had designed the control system for the updated robot, and Applied Geo Technologies Inc. (AGT), a tribally-owned corporation in Choctaw, Mississippi, was given the task of manufacturing the modified Exponent MARCbots.
AGT is currently producing 40 new systems per month, upgrading the original Exponent product to make the MARCbot IV-N, the “N” designating its NASA roots. It has completed over 300 of these units, all of which are on their way overseas for active duty. They are also producing a kit so that already-deployed units can be upgraded in the field.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, IEDs have been responsible for approximately half of all U.S. and coalition force casualties and combat injuries in Iraq.
These devices disrupt supply convoys, destroy assets, and have been credited with killing or maiming thousands of soldiers. The MARCbot is a remotely operated reconnaissance robot specifically developed to identify IEDs and maintaining a safe distance—allowing a soldier to assess whether an object is a potential IED while avoiding close (and perhaps dangerous) physical proximity. It is used to hunt down threats to soldiers by allowing a suspected IED to be examined remotely.
The small-wheeled robot is easy to use. It operates with a standard laptop using Windows software and is operated with a common video game controller. In fact, when looking for components, the NASA engineers actually stopped by a series of local pawn shops and purchased used video game controllers, knowing that these parts were readily-accessible, cheap, and most importantly, would be used intuitively by the average young soldier. Although it operates much like a remote-controlled toy car, this robot has features not found under the Christmas tree: It is several times more rugged than even the most robust toy and comes equipped with a video camera, GPS, compass, and an articulated arm. Once it travels so far, it also has way-finding features, so the operator can instruct the robot to find its own way back, following a memorized path.
Reports have come back from the battlefield of soldiers giving their MARCbots names, honorary medals and ranks, and mourning their loss in combat.
Currently, one user operates a single MARCbot IV-N, but future plans are to have one operator oversee a fleet of semi-autonomous robots in order to gain complete situational awareness. Future plans also include adding radiation sensors and plume detection for dirty bomb cleanup and mitigation.
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