Most of the unmanned ground vehicles in US service are products of defense companies, but commercial companies also are getting in the business. One of the most familiar is Segway, the corporate brainchild of inventing genius Dean Kamen. Segway makes the Personal Transporter (PT), the two-wheeled platform that incorporates gyro balance to move in the direction its driver leans. In addition to its commercial transporters, Segway has devised products for first responders and military use.
Personal transporters modified for heavy use already are in service with US Army and police explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) units. They provide quick and easy movement for technicians who must wear protective armor weighing up to 100 pounds.
The Segway that features the most potential for UGV applications is the Robotic Mobility Platform (RMP) series, a two-axle platform that can carry up to 400 pounds of payload at speeds up to 18 mph with 10- to 15-mile endurance from the battery. The platform itself is more than 2 feet square with room to install a variety of robotic systems. The RMP 400 series utilizes four inflated tires, and the RMP Omni series employs ingenious mecanum wheels—essentially spools on gimbals attached to the main axles—that enable the Omni to move sideways as well as fore and aft at maximum speeds of 7 mph. Platform and robot can combine for unprecedentedly tiny remote control movements.
Segway Robotics has collaborated with the Stanford Research Institute to produce two RMP-mounted systems. The M7 telesurgery robot uses the RMP 50 Omni and can defuse a bomb with the same precision as a highly trained EOD technician, and a water cannon for remote control fire fighting. The M7 was designed for complex and delicate operations that may require remote control, such as emergency surgery in contaminated environments, or work on hazardous materials. Although not conceived as an EOD tool, it is well suited to the miniscule dismantling movements that bomb defusing often involves. With the M7, soldiers can take apart improvised explosive devices (IEDs) effectively without exposure to physical harm.
Segway is also developing an RMP with a water cannon for remote fire fighting. The cannon uses the RMP 400, which can move at 18 mph on conventional tires, for mobility and can project 10 gallons of water or flame retardant per second.
The other robot unveiled by Segway Robotics is an entirely different kind of savior—the kind you send into a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails. Based on the company’s existing four-wheeled, 240-pound RMP 400 robotic platform, the prototype can travel at a blistering (by ground robot standards) 18 mph, and is armed with a water cannon capable of firing 10 gallons per second. While that makes the robot a natural fit for fighting forest fires (where Segway believes that one operator could do the work of three exhausted firefighters, either piloting it remotely or using the controls mounted on the rear of the vehicle) or responding to fires near pressurized tanks or other explosives, the mounted water cannon is the same kind used by Israeli authorities for riot control. That’s no coincidence.
When the company begins its marketing push for the water-cannon variant of the RMP 400 within the next six months, Segway expects nearly all of the sales to be geared toward fighting fires, with a small but significant number of units snapped up for crowd control. They also expect customers to modify the robot to their own specs, reinforcing it with Kevlar or other armor as they see fit. If Segway succeeds in getting the RMP variant’s initial price, estimated at $100,000 or more, down to $50,000, it could be only a matter of time before units show up around the world—and street protests start looking like nothing less than the opening skirmishes in a war with the machines.