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Reconnaissance robots, from the throwable to the flyable

The SCORP from Novatiq improves on existing designs

The robots in use today are nothing like those predicted in 1950s and 1960s science fiction films and TV shows (“Danger, Will Robinson!”), but they are unquestionably useful. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely send in their robots to observe suspected improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and to carry and place charges to disable the IEDs in place. Team members develop an affection for “their” robots, asking that a damaged model be repaired and returned to them, rather than replaced with a new one.

The same type of remotely-controlled vehicles are used in law enforcement in EOD and recon situations where it’s too risky to send human officers in harm’s way. Most of the robots in use for this purpose have been very expensive, multi-tasking models — certainly not something you would consider throwing over a fence or through a doorway. The latest models are designed to do exactly that.

The SCORP from Novatiq looks like a toy tank with oversize treads, and two arms that jut out from one end. The treads allow the robot to move across almost any terrain or obstacle, while the projecting arms rotate to right the device if it tips over or has to negotiate stairs.

The Novatiq SCORP looks like a toy tank with oversize treads, and two arms that jut out from one end. (Image courtesy of Novatiq)
The Novatiq SCORP looks like a toy tank with oversize treads, and two arms that jut out from one end. (Image courtesy of Novatiq)

About the size of a thick book, SCORP carries four cameras with an on-board infrared illuminator to provide 360-degree observation under any light conditions. The robot is designed to be deployed by throwing it into the area of interest and then using the remote control to move it and view the output of its cameras. It weighs 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs.) without any “payload” accessories. It will operate for three to six hours before needing a battery recharge, and can operate for up to 500 meters (546 yards) from the handheld control station. Novatiq doesn’t provide purchase information, but does indicate the SCORP is “affordable.”

Another option in the “throwbot” market is the Recon Scout Throwbot, which is the shape and size of a two-pound barbell. The “weight” portion of the barbell is actually the device’s wheels and motor, and the camera, batteries and antennae are on the connecting “bar.” A counterbalance tail keeps the cameras pointed forward and the antennas up. The whole device is 7.4 inches wide and three inches high, and weighs only 1.2 pounds. It really is sturdy enough to throw into any environment you can walk into and be able to walk out. Its transmitter/receiver has a range of 100-300 feet and it moves at about one foot per second. The turnkey package, including control unit, chargers and everything else you might need is $4875.

Aerial recon is now available with hobbyist radio-control (RC) helicopters and quadrotors with on-board cameras and transmitters. A quadrotor is a type of helicopter with four rotors, each at the ends of a right-angle cross. Two of the rotors spin in the opposite direction of the other two, canceling out torque and providing stability. These devices have demonstrated remarkable stability and maneuverability , although their endurance is limited by the batteries they have to carry for power.

A project developed by the Japanese Ministry of Defense has produced the first spherical flying machine, also with great stability and precise movement. This beach ball-size machine can take off and land vertically, fly at up to 37-mph with wings, and resist being batted out of the air. In a demonstration video that looks a little like a magician’s trick, the pilot-developer moved the sphere around the auditorium, pushed against it as it hovered (and had it immediately return to the place and attitude it was before the push), and broadcast video from an onboard camera. Possibly the most amazing aspect of the device is that it was built from off-the-shelf components for about $1400. It’s not yet commercially available, but given the Japanese knack for selling electronic gadgets to Americans, it probably won’t be long before you can have one for your very own.

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