A couple of months ago I got the chance to review the iRobot 110 FirstLook robot. (Ed. note: Yes, this is the same iRobot company that builds the Roomba.) Bruce Archambault, the Army Business Manager for iRobot, was in the area and good enough to bring a couple of options to our police department for testing and evaluation.
Although he also brought some larger options, it was the FirstLook robot that really piqued my interest for uses by Tactical Teams. Perhaps a better name for this mobile device would be “ThrowBot”, because that is exactly what this robot was designed to do, and it does it well.
Robots for Tactical Teams
The concept of using robots for tactical purposes has really taken off over the last decade. The enormous growth and demand in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of operation, has led many civilian tactical teams to see the advantages that can be obtained from their use. Unlike military robots that often search out IED’s, the civilian tactical teams have realized that a robot can provide an incredible amount of intelligence without exposing team members to hostile threats.
However, most of the robots on the market to date have been medium to large-sized bots that border on impractical for Tactical Team use. Not that the larger robots don’t provide a great tool, but their large stature often makes their transportation difficult. They also often require more than one person to properly maneuver and problem solve issues that arise. In addition, older or cluttered structures can quickly bog down the larger robots to the point of making them ineffective for the intended use. Most Tactical Teams are part-time units, and some rely on members from multiple agencies. Those Tactical Teams are already stretched for personnel, so dropping 1-2 guys to run a robot may not be possible.
The iRobot 110 FirstLook
The FirstLook robot looks to provide Tactical Teams a light-weight option for robot intelligence. Unlike the larger robots the FirstLook is about the same size as a child’s electronic car, and weighs about the same too. This is a huge benefit for Tactical Teams. The FirstLook is operated using Aware-2 robot intelligence software.
The FirstLook is a tread-propelled robot like many of its bigger brothers. It takes on the look of a miniature armored personnel carrier (like the old M113). In addition the Lithium-Ion battery can be charged by simply plugging the robot and controller into a wall socket. The compact size allows for a single hand carry, or it could easily be stored in a backpack or camera-sized Pelican case.
Though small in size this robot opens all kinds of possibilities that the larger bots don’t offer. Such as being able to be tossed into an attic, or a basement crawl space. Have one of those impossible hallways with too many corners to cover? Let the FirstLook clear ahead of the Team, or at least eliminate enough threats that the Team can move forward and clear what is left. Or how about a drainage tunnel.
The Operator Control Unit (OCU)
The controls are very similar to a Sony Playstation controller, although in a bigger format. iRobot calls their controller the “Operator Control Unit (OCU). The OCU has two rotating knobs, along with several push buttons to control the movements and cameras on the FirstLook. This will likely be tremendously beneficial because many younger cops (and some older ones too) are quite familiar with this type of controller and can very rapidly transition to controlling the FirstLook. I did, and I don’t have a Playstation to practice on.
The Speed Option
The FirstLook controls allow the operator to move the vehicle in fast, or slow speeds. So if you need to cover a lot of ground you select “fast” from a menu and the FirstLook will drive up to 3.4 mph. Doesn’t seem too fast until you see the robot in action. Once you’re near your target location, a simple menu selection allows you to maneuver the FirstLook with greater precision.
When the FirstLook is moving along at full speed there is a typical humming noise associated with the engine and treads. However, slower speed movements are much quieter allowing for an almost stealth approach to targets.
Throw that Throwbot!
The FirstLook is very durable. Like I said, it was meant to be thrown. Thrown into rooms, through windows, down stairs, up stairs, etc. Archambault was confident enough to give us a demonstration of the FirstLook’s sturdiness. All I can say about that demonstration is that most would consider it abuse!
Yet the FirstLook performed well each time and seemed to not mind being tossed on grass or sometimes hard surfaces. When Archambault threw the FirstLook about 15-20 feet high and 30 feet out, there may have been an expletive or two that slipped out. However, the FirstLook took it all in stride and made its way back to us in no time – and with no wear! I have to admit, that when I put the FirstLook through some trials of my own I did not go to such extremes.
Self and Auto Correcting
The makers realized that to accomplish a truly throwable robot, the FirstLook might not always land upright. To solve this problem there are two self-righting lever arms on each side. These can be manipulated by the operator at will, or the FirstLook will auto-correct after a set time. That was a really cool feature, and obviously has great application to real-life scenarios.
Those lever arms can also be used to allow the FirstLook to change perspective for the cameras, and in some cases climb stairs or other obstacles. However, I will advise that climbing stairs was a difficult task to learn, and the FirstLook preferred concrete or hardwood over carpet for better traction. I was unable to climb some larger stairs successfully.
Lights, Cameras, Action!
The FirstLook incredibly has four cameras mounted on it small frame. One front, one rear, and one on each side cover a 360-degree area fairly well. The cameras allow for configurable video compression. These cameras have a zoom feature that can almost measure the bolts underneath cars. The cameras also have an Infrared capability for the ever-present nighttime use.
In addition to cameras the FirstLook comes with a 2-way audio communication set up. Always a party pleaser, this option can also provide a unique way for negotiators to communicate with a suspect who may not want to pick up the throw-phone. The audio feature also allows for stealth intelligence gathering should the FirstLook be able to be deployed without a suspect knowing about its presence.
Another Look at the FirstLook
- System Components – FirstLook, OCU, AC/DC charger, Robot & OCU BB-2590 Adapter
- Weight – 5 lbs.
- Height – 4 inches
- Length – 10 inches
- Width – 9 inches
- Speed – up to 3.4 mph
- Radio Communication – Digital radio, Modular interface, Mesh networking capable
- Radio Frequencies – Default = 2.4 GHz
- Line of Sight Range – up to 656 feet
- Audio – Two-way
- Cameras – Four built-in: Front, Rear, one on each Side
- Camera Features – Pan, Tilt, 8x digital zoom
- Video – Configurable video compression
- Illumination – Infrared
- Runtime – More than 6 hours on average, up to 10 hours stationary video
- Water Resistant – IP67 (submersible to 3.3 feet)
- Operating Temperature – (-4) to 131 degrees F
- Price – $10,000 to $15,000 (Larger robots typically run for $25,000-80,000)
- Game-style control layout
- Length – 4.3”
- Width – 9”
- Height – 1.8”
- Weight – 2 lbs.
- Rugged and water-resistant
- Screen – 5” LCD with 800×480 resolution
- Integrated radio
- Aware-2 robot intelligence software
If the FirstLook still isn’t as impressive as you would like there are several additional features that can be added:
- Payload accessory port facilitates integration of specialized cameras
- Thermal imagers
- Chem-Bio-Radiation sensors
- Carrying disruptive payloads (EOD stuff) weighing up to 1/2 pound.
Using Robot-Equipped EOD Teams
If you’ve never looked into robots before, then the sticker price may do more than just shock you. A lot of technical genius went into developing these devices, and they offer quite a bit. In the FirstLook’s case you get all that in a small, lightweight package. Add to that the Federal Government is the biggest purchaser, and you know that prices can run high. Many Tactical Teams will just not be able to afford one, so for them I offer this option as a viable solution to your critical needs.
Our department is blessed to have an Explosives Ordnance Disposal Team that is separate from the Tactical Team, but kept under the same overall Special Operations Unit. Both Teams are part-time, but well trained and equipped. Our bomb guys have met Federal guidelines to be a regional response Team. As such, they come with a large mobile command post, a minimum of two robots, and of course the big suits and all the toys that go along with them.
On several occasions we’ve called them out on barricaded subject calls to run the robot around or into the house to positively identify suspect locations and armed status. Most of the larger robots have an articulating arm that can rise as much as 6 feet from the ground, as well as turn in a 360-degree manner, providing multiple options to solve the intelligence problem. Some of those arms, along with motor power, are also strong enough to drag a downed officer in certain circumstances.
The great advantage of this arrangement is that the Tactical Team can focus all of their energies on the tactical solution, while the EOD Team can respond on intelligence missions to help the Tactical Team pick the best plan. Not to mention that we aren’t pulling operators off the line to run the robot.
The Mobile EOD Solution
This solution does not have to be reserved for only those departments with an EOD Team equipped with robots. Like I mentioned, our EOD Team is a regional team. After 9-11 there were many large city EOD Teams that became certified by the Feds to become regional response teams. Obviously the bigger call would be for an explosive device, but if one of these teams is even close to your location I would spend some extra time to get very close to them. Most of these guys are extremely dedicated, and would love the opportunity to test out their robot skills in a real-life scenario instead of another training session.
Our EOD Team has traveled over an hour to assist rural units on explosive devices, and I know that if the need came up on a barricaded subject call they would be more than happy to respond and help out. Obviously, if you seek out this option a Team Leader or Commander needs to screen the times you use this resource or it may dry up. An occasional call on the really big needs is fine, where calling on every weed warrant will likely get you the answering machine. Even our Tactical Team only calls the EOD guys on the big stuff, and I think both sides prefer it that way.