Cue the "Skynet" conspiracy theories: Robots are beginning to team up and work together -- and the U.S. government is helping them do it.
In what DefenseOne.com is calling "the next level in battlefield autonomy," the U.S. Marine Corps recently conducted a high-tech robotic scavenger hunt. Hitching a flying drone to a rolling iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) PackBot robot, USMC gave the robotic duo a mission: Locate a green marker out in the field, take a photo, and email it back to HQ.
PackBot and its new pal dutifully rumbled out into the field, found their marker, and sent a pic back. So the Marines upped the difficulty one notch, hiding the marker where it wasn't visible from the ground. PackBot ran its search, couldn't find the marker, and so independently decided to launch its drone to take a look from the air.
Mission accomplished, times two
It worked. The Marines' new UTACC software (short for Unmanned Tactical Autonomous Control and Collaboration), which was guiding the robots, successfully found its target using two separate types of unmanned robots, with no help from a human controlling the search.
And that's the real takeaway. What's revolutionary about the experiment the Marines just conducted isn't necessarily the pairing of a flying drone with a ground-based robot. It's not even (necessarily) important that the Marines chose iRobot as one half of their drone-based solution. (Although it does suggest the Marines still like iRobot's platform, which should mean good things for iRobot's defense & security business, where sales slumped nearly 10% last year, according to S&P Capital IQ.)
The future of robots
What's really key, Marine Corps Lt. Col. James Richardson Jr. told DefenseOne, is that "you didn't have the Marine controlling it; you had the software actually controlling the UGV and UAS to do the mission." This emphasis on software is platform-agnostic, in that one day, software could foster cooperation among ground-based robots, drones in the air, and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) in the water as well.
As Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea explains, regardless of what specific kinds of robots are in the mix, "The unmanned systems must recognize what they're being told to do, formulate a plan, and then execute a shared understanding of mission requirements."
How might it work?
Take the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, for example. The airplane has been missing for more than a year, and no one knows with 100% certainty whether it ended up on the ground, crashed at sea, or... who knows, maybe it's still circling around up there somewhere. Well, one day, a team of UTACC-connected robots could be assigned to find that out.
Say you need to search an ocean grid containing a desert island. PackBots could be dispatched to patrol the island, while the Navy's new fleet of RC submarines combs the sea bottom offshore, all while UAVs monitor the operation from above. As long as they have a place to refuel, such a team of air-land-sea robots could operate autonomously until it finds its quarry.
What it means for investors
This sounds like great news for humans, who can sit back and let robots do the work, and great news for military humans in particular, who will have a new tool for all sorts of missions. UTACC's greatest import for investors though, is this:
It's not about hardware anymore, or at least not primarily.
Sure, arguments will flare as to whether General Atomics' Predator or Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk is the better spy plane, and whether iRobot or QinetiQ makes the better bomb-disposal robot. But as robots begin to team up, the more important question is who can organize a better sum of the parts, rather than just who makes the best parts, period. Accordingly, as investors we now need to start paying closer attention to the companies building better software for integrating various drone platforms into a more useful team.
Ready to get started? Begin here and here, where I profile one "small" up-and-comer in the robotic software space that has been making headlines and snapping up software companies. I think it could be a contender.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 327 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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