iRobot's robots of tomorrow

You might know iRobot, who've been making robots for the last 20 years, as the chaps behind the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. However, the company has a large research and development department that not only works on the next evolution of home products, but also "cool toys" as the company's chief technology officer, Dr Tom Wagner, tells Pocket-lint.

We talked to the "wizard" as he pulled back the curtain to show us what could be possible in the future and some of the things it is working on.

The iRobot 710 Warrior

This is one robot you want on your side when you next find yourself on a battlefield.

The Warrior is the latest iRobot military offering and is in its final stages before hopefully getting deployed in "hot zones" around the world. Building on the company's successful Packbot range that's currently deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and episodes of 24 and CSI, the Warrior is the new big daddy of the fleet.

Why is it so special? Well, those tracks let the Warrior speed along most terrains at a pace equivalent to a four-minute mile for over 20 miles, while all the time carrying around 150lbs (75Kg) of gear.

If that wasn't enough to have you running scared, then those tracks also have the ability to swivel allowing it to hop over obstacles, like rocks and walls, on its way as it hunts you down.

Once it gets to the "target zone" the arm swings into action offering the technician working the magic the chance to clear things out of the way or even defuse a bomb.

ETA: Next couple of months.

Landroid

Landroid is one, of a gang of miniature robots that individually weighs about 500 grams and works as a team, providing a mobile mesh network for other robots to work within.

It might look more like Bigtrak than a state of the art robot, but don't let those looks fool you. This is considerably cleverer. The idea here is that the Landroid robots work in connection with each other to create a communications network.

That communications network could be used to provide sensory data from the battlefield or provide connectivity for other robots or soldiers within that area to work.

And because it's all based on a mesh network, if the enemy takes one of the Landroids out, the others will pick up the slack.

Wagner tells us that while the 500-gram version is viable, it's also very expensive. To solve that problem in the short term, iRobot is developing a 2kg cheaper version that it hopes to roll out instead.

ETA: 1-2 years

Haptic Force Sensing Gripper

Being able to drive a robot into a house, defuse a bomb and then get out without actually sending a man into the equation is, as you can imagine, a life saving thing.

That's currently possible and happening, with iRobot's Packbot, right now. The problem though, is that the gripper on the end of the arm doesn't offer any sensory feedback, until now.

Using haptic technology, the same found in some mobile phones that buzz when you touch the screen, for example, iRobot is developing a gripper that gives the operator force feedback when they touch objects.

Squeeze a ball and you'll get resistance.

Still in its early stages (yes that is a Novint Falcon controller you can buy for your PC) the engineers at iRobot have hacked and spliced together a system that works. Pinching your fingers together controls the gripper, but if you've got an object in your grasp the gripper will push back.

The clever bit isn't just the ability to relay the information, but interpreting it so you know what you are holding. And yes, iRobot tells us you can use it to handle eggs.

The idea is that by allowing operators to have greater feeling into what they are touching, it will allow them to have a better understanding of the objects they are dealing with even if they are on the other side of the planet.

iRobot hopes to see the technology in its robots, like the Packbot, and also in medical operating theatres so surgeons can operate on people from a distance.

ETA: 2-3 years

Aware head

If the arm of a Packbot is getting better, then you just know the company is working on improving the visual and artificial intelligence elements as well.

Aware head is a technology that is still under development, but put simply allows the robot to be aware of its surroundings.

That means if you send it into a building it will be able to create a map of that building by driving around the different rooms and then feed that information back to command.

But it's not just a remote mapping droid, it then uses the information it's gained to allow it to better navigate around its surroundings.

That means, once it knows where the rooms are, you can then tell it to come home or go to a specific waypoint and it, having remembered where it's been will easily do so, and all without the use of GPS.

Think of the early stages of Command and Conquer when you are discovering the map for the first time with a drone.

The same technology is also being used to train the robot to specifically follow certain people, by being able to pick them out of the environment without that person having to wear a special marker, just like a support drone does in a video game.

ETA: 3-5 years

Transphibian

With the Earth's surface being 70 per cent water, iRobot's research and development department is developing water robots as well.

The Transphibian is a robot that can swim and crawl allowing it to quickly travel across various terrains.

Those flippers allow it to have full navigational control under water and on land, meaning that it can sit on the bottom of the sea without getting stuck, a problem that supposedly affects lots of underwater robots.

Sensors on the robot allow it to collect data within the water, and a similar version of this robot was used to help out the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

We aren't entirely sure what it does or why you need it, and iRobot didn't really either.

Just don't go in the water.

Jambot

Also known within the department as Chembot or even Squishybot, this is a "giant jamming modulated unimorph" robot that is based on the concept of the T1000 from Terminator. Yes that's right, a shape shifting robot that eventually will be able to slide under doors and change shape into whatever it wants or needs to be.

Before you sell up and move into an underground bunker, waiting for the day Skynet takes over, we should point out that the technology is in the very early early stages - think pre-alpha alpha.

Using air pressure and chemicals, the robot, via a software interface, is able to change shape to either help it propel itself along or do specific tasks like moving an arm or a leg.

While it's not going to hunt you down like the iRobot Warrior, iRobot has high hopes for the technology and has already found a sideline use for it - allowing it to easily pick up different objects by becoming floppy before grabbing an object once pressure is applied.

The other advantage is that the technology is extremely cheap to make as you aren't having to mould parts.

ETA: 10 years plus.