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March 29, 2007

THURSDAY: Explosive-sniffing robots headed to Iraq to help U.S. military counter deadly roadside bombs (2:35 p.m.)

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DAYTON, Ohio (AP) - The U.S. military, increasing its reliance on robots in war, soon will be using explosive-sniffing robots to better detect roadside bombs which account for more than 70 percent of the U.S. casualties in Iraq.

Fido is the first robot with an explosives sensor integrated into its body. iRobot Corp. is filling the military's first order of 100 in this southwest Ohio city and will begin shipping the robots over the next few months.

There are nearly 5,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, up from about 150 in 2004. Soldiers use them to search caves and buildings for insurgents, detect mines and ferret out roadside and car bombs.

As the war in Iraq enters its fourth year, the U.S. government is spending more money on military robots and the two major U.S. robot-makers have increased production.

Foster-Miller Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, just delivered 1,000 new robots to the military. iRobot, of Burlington, Massachusetts, cranked out 385 robots in 2006, up from 252 in 2005.

The government will spend a total of about $1.7 billion on ground-based military robots between fiscal 2006 and 2012, according to Bill Thomasmeyer, head of the National Center for Defense Robotics, a congressionally funded consortium of 160 companies, universities and government labs. That's up from $100 million in fiscal 2004.

Fido, produced at the GEM City Manufacturing and Engineering plant in Dayton, represents an improvement in bomb-detecting military robots, said Col. Terry Griffin, project manager of the Army/Marine Corps Robotic Systems Joint Project Office at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

The bomb-sniffing sensor is part of the robot, with its readings displayed on the controller along with camera images. Otherwise, a soldier would have to approach the suspicious object with a sensor or try to attach it to a robot. The new robot also has a 7-foot manipulator arm so it can use the sensor to scan the inside and undercarriages of vehicles for bombs.

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