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In the Boston University demonstration, Redowl was mounted atop a PackBot, a workhorse robot made by Burlington, MA-based iRobot. More than 300 PackBots with other types of attachments have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq to explore caves and ammunition dumps and to dispose of roadside bombs. U.S. soldiers have even adapted the robots to carry supplies, such as bullets and water, to pinned-down troops.

“One of the things that’s key to robots, and to robots’ contribution to network-centered warfare, is speed,” says Joe Dyer, a retired Navy vice admiral who’s now general manager of iRobot’s Government and Industrial Robots division. “Without information, you’re huddled down trying to figure out what to do next.” But with Redowl as its nervous system, Dyer says, the PackBot can help “resolve quickly where a shot is fired from and [let] you take direct action.”

If a sniper disabled a Redowl-bearing PackBot by shooting at it, however, wouldn’t the soldiers be as vulnerable as before? “Were I the bad guy, I wouldn’t shoot the robot,” says Dyer. If the sniper misses, that one shot would give away his location – and fast. What’s more, a single direct hit would be unlikely to destroy the robot. “Realistically, it ain’t gonna happen,” Dyer says.

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