iRobot is developing a new series of military robots that detect chemicals. Under a $3.3 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army Research Office, iRobot will develop Chemical Robots (or ChemBots) that can maneuver through highly cluttered environments to find chemicals and perform other tasks.

Just last week, iRobot announced that it would build Seaglider undersea robots for oceanographic research and industrial purposes. The Bedford, Mass. company is best known for its Roomba vacuum-cleaning robots, which have sold more than two million units. But it also has a thriving business in selling robots to the military for battleground use. Its robots have been used to scout caves in Afghanistan and deal with bombs in Iraq.

The ChemBots will be soft, flexible and mobile so that they can identify and maneuver through smaller openings than their actual structural dimensions. iRobot is leading a team of experts that includes researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The team will incorporate advances in chemistry, materials science, actuators (little motors) electronics, sensors and fabrication.

Helen Greiner, chairman of iRobot, said that the project will help intelligent robots move from the realm of science fiction to ever more advanced uses on the battlefield. DARPA originally approached iRobot to make robots dubbed PackBot for a tactical military robot program. More recently, DARPA asked iRobot to create a communications robot, dubbed a LANdroid. To date, iRobot has built more than 1,500 PackBots.

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