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John Deere, iRobot team on military vehicle

BOSTON -- In a pairing of robotics and tractor companies, iRobot and John Deere disclosed plans yesterday to build a 9-foot-long semi-autonomous battlefield vehicle.

Burlington-based iRobot Corp. will adapt the artificial intelligence technology used in its Roomba vacuums and portable PackBot military robots for a two-seat John Deere utility vehicle similar to ones the Pentagon already uses.

The Military Robotic Gator, or R-Gator, will be the first of its kind to use off-the-shelf technology, making it easier and less expensive to produce than existing, custom-made vehicles, the companies said.

While the Pentagon is expected to be the first customer, the R-Gator's developers hope to eventually draw interest from elsewhere for use in everything from responding to chemical spills to patrolling borders, said Helen Greiner, iRobot's chairwoman and cofounder.

"The military is a great early adopter," Greiner said in Washington, where the companies revealed their plans at a trade show for Army contractors.

Moline, Ill.-based John Deere & Co. and iRobot plan to begin pilot production of the six-wheel R-Gator by the middle of next year at a production cost of about $250,000 apiece, Greiner said. Full production is to begin in 2006.

The vehicle, 5 feet wide, has three basic modes: autonomous, remote control, or manually driven by onboard human operators. Depending on battlefield circumstances, the vehicle could be controlled remotely, freeing up the soldiers inside it for other tasks, Greiner said.

The vehicle will be able to relay real-time video, audio, and sensor readings from the field. Such capabilities could allow for unmanned perimeter patrols of a military installation, or for reconnaissance or carrying supplies such as ammunition, the companies said.

The vehicle is based on John Deere's M-Gator, which US forces have used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq. IRobot's PackBots have been used in thousands of missions in those two countries to disarm roadside bombs and search caves and buildings.

William "Red" Whittaker, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said the partnership will allow iRobot and John Deere to draw from each others' strengths in military robotics, where bigger players including Boeing and Lockheed Martin loom large.

The partnership signifies a maturing in robotics.

"These kinds of alliances would not have been viable 10 to 15 years ago, when those technologies weren't capable or the markets weren't ready for them," Whittaker said.

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