This image shows Urbie, one of PackBot’s “ancestors.” This lightweight structure, which included some NASA technology, had rugged features that were useful in emergency response situations. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Design techniques honed at NASA’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for Mars rovers were used to
create the rover currently examining the inside of Japan’s nuclear reactors, in
areas not yet deemed safe for human crews.
The iRobot PackBot employs
technologies used previously in the design of “Rocky-7,” which served
as a terrestrial test bed at JPL for the current twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. PackBot’s structural features are modeled
after Rocky-7, including the lightweight, high-torque actuators that control
the rover; and its strong, lightweight frame structure and sheet-metal chassis.
“ancestor,” called Urbie, was an urban reconnaissance robot with
military and disaster response applications. Urbie’s lightweight structure and
rugged features also made it useful in emergency response situations; for
example, at sites contaminated with radiation and chemical spills, and at
buildings damaged by earthquakes. Urbie’s physical structure was designed by
iRobot Corp., Bedford, Mass., while JPL was responsible for the
intelligent robot’s onboard sensors and vision algorithms, which helped the
robot factor in obstacles and determine an appropriate driving path. Following
the success of Urbie’s milestones, the team at iRobot created its successor:
Since 2002, iRobot has delivered
variations of the PackBot model to the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy.
The tactical robot’s first military deployment was to Afghanistan in
July 2002, to assist soldiers by providing “eyes and ears” in the
most dangerous or inaccessible areas. It was also used to search through debris
at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York.
Recently, iRobot provided two
PackBots to help after the devastating March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami
The PackBot models, currently taking radioactivity readings in the damaged
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant buildings, are equipped with multiple
cameras and hazard material sensors. The images and readings provided by the
PackBots indicated radiation levels are still too high to allow human repair
crews to safely enter the buildings.
Urbie was a joint effort of the
Defense Advanced Research Project’s Agency’s (DARPA) Tactical Mobile Robot
program, JPL, iRobot Corp., the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon Univ.,
and the Univ. of Southern California’s Robotics Research
Laboratory. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology
For more information on the
history of the partnership between iRobot and JPL, visit: http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2005/ps_1.html.