Small robot scouts hazardous situations

The Department of Defense first funded technology now used by law enforcement.

Next time there is a fire, a robot could enter the burning building instead of firefighters to search for victims.

A company founded in 2005 by seven University students started selling the Scout Throwable Robot in January to local and state law enforcement agencies.

Now, the company is marketing the device to fire departments, said Alan Bignall, president and chief executive officer of Recon Robotics.

The robot can be thrown into windows or buildings and relay information about people trapped in a location, and possible grenades or explosives in the area.

The central research and development organization of the Department of Defense awarded the grant that first financed the robot in 1997.

“They wanted a robot that could be used overseas in Iraq,” said Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, director of the University’s Center for Distributed Robotics, which invented the robot in 1999.

After receiving the grant, Papanikolopoulos and five computer science and engineering students worked on the first robot that was sent to military personnel stationed in Iraq.

“The credit for the robot needs to go to the students. It’s their work,” he said.

The robot is different from other robots because it is small – weighing about one pound – portable, and can be thrown anywhere without breaking, Papanikolopoulos said.

Though the robot can help to save human lives, there is a problem with a lack of accurate information transmitted by the robot, Papanikolopoulos said.

“The robot can be dropped into an area, but the person operating the control does not know if it moved, so the location is unknown,” he said.

Mechanical engineering junior Alex Kossett, who currently works in the University robotics lab, said the Scout Throwable Robot can transmit video feeds from up to 300 feet away.

Papanikolopoulos said this type of technology allows the robot to be used in hostile situations or fires to survey potential danger or hazards.

“If a robot is destroyed, it can be replaced and is not as bad as if a human is lost,” he said.

In addition to being small and portable, the robot is durable. It still works after it’s thrown multiple times, Bignall said.

The price of the robot – $6,500 – and the ease of use are also selling points, he said.

Since Recon Robotics just started selling the robot, the goal is to grow the company carefully and slowly, Bignall said.

“Minnesota is in a unique position to be a robotics base for the country,” Bignall said, since the University has state-of-the-art robot research facilities.

While Recon Robotics designs and sells the robots,

South St. Paul-based MSG Solutions assembles the robots, he said.

The robotics lab at the University discontinued manufacturing the original version of the Scout Throwable Robot because of the cost, but they are developing other robots, Kossett said.

While new University-produced robots cannot be thrown into areas, they have computer feeds that allow quicker information downloads into computers and can be as technologically powerful as a laptop, he said.

University graduate student Mike Janssen said the new robots use Bluetooth technology to easily transfer information to a computer receiver.

“The people working on the robots traded the jumping capability for better information gathering,” he said.