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Meet GuardBot!

16 August 2013

A Connecticut-based company is developing amphibious robot sentinels for patrolling ports, estuaries, and other shallow-water environments.

In the world of robots, GuardBot is the ultimate minimalist. The spherical, amphibious robot looks like a big ball with eyeballs on the side, or a fat tire with plastic domes over the metal wheels. Right now it's weaving through an office suite strewn with electronics debris, rolling right over tangles of wiring as it maneuvers around office furniture, humming like a remote control car. Suddenly the hum stops.

'Yes! Did you see that?' Dan Bersak shouts. Bersak, chief engineer at GuardBot, is testing a new kill switch. GuardBot now sits quietly in the middle of the office, looking innocently inanimate. The switch works.

It's just a regular Friday afternoon at GuardBot. Bersak is winding down after a week of testing a new prototype. The test ground this week was the parking garage under GuardBot's office suite in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. But amphibians shouldn't stay out of the water long, which is why the office is a mere 10-minute drive from the beach.

The southwestern Connecticut shoreline is rocky and littered with boulders. Clumps of seagrass wave in the shallow water, ready to tangle unwary swimmers. But GuardBot can handle it: Shallow-water harbors, river mouths, and ports are the locations where GuardBot excels. The bot's round, 22-inch diameter exoskeleton allows it to roll over curbs, potholes and ruts in the ground about as well as a midsize sedan. It floats in water and it can swim.

In fact, watching GuardBot move is a little uncanny. We're so used to animals with legs, or cars with drive shafts and engines, that it seems unnatural for a ball to move itself. When it rolls, it resembles the murderous car tire of the cult comedy Rubber (2010). But GuardBot does not use mysterious psychic powers to make beer bottles, birds, or people explode—at least not while this reporter is watching. GuardBot's secret is a much more Newtonian one: an interior pendulum. A motor attaches the pendulum to the shell. When the motor moves the pendulum, the center of mass moves within the sphere, and GuardBot rolls to compensate.

Amphibious robots are unusual, and GuardBot attracts a lot of military interest. The US Navy, for example, would love to use GuardBots instead of human divers to inspect dangerous underwater environments. During the Haitian earthquake crisis, for example, navy ships loaded with supplies waited to dock at Port au Prince until human divers could be outfitted and check the harbor bottom and docks for damage. GuardBots would have been safer, cheaper and faster. GuardBot's client list includes several other military services, both domestic and foreign. For a small company, military clients have a big advantage: the budget for project development.

But working with the defense industry has its challenges, and, sometimes, its fatal outcomes. The predecessor to the current GuardBot prototype had a run in with an over-zealous customs officer in the Persian Gulf. The militarily-hardened exoskeleton could withstand nuclear, biological and chemical attack, but not five days in a room with a determined customs agent and a crowbar. This is one of the risks you take as a small company traveling internationally with military hardware.

The private sector also has its eye on GuardBot. The robot's first real gig was in 2010 when it filmed soccer matches from the sidelines at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. A Mexican television station commissioned a special blue exoskeleton for GuardBot, tattooed with their white Telcel logo. The rationale? Mexican soccer fans would love a robotic ball.

'We like to be nimble,' says GuardBot president Peter Muhlrad. Muhlrad first encountered the round, amphibious robot when he was hired by a group of Swedish students at the University of Uppsala. They had conceived of the bot as part of a competition to design a Mars Rover. They didn't win, but they raised $7 million in development capital and found Muhlrad. Muhlrad had experience as an entrepreneur and contacts in the defense industry. Eventually the group ran out of money, and Muhlrad bought the patent from them. He set up shop in southwestern Connecticut, close to several universities and a large defense manufacturing base. The company collaborates with local institutions, including Fairfield University and Yale, where they found Bersak.

It's a small, six-person company where everybody does everything. Even Muhlrad, who as president is focused on big-picture strategy, comes in regularly to answer the phone and take out the trash. That's how you make a successful company, he says.

They also like to move from idea to prototype quickly. Someone will generate an idea, and one of the engineers will hole up in his or her office for a few days to make a mock-up from whatever is on hand. If the mock-up looks like it could work, they'll prototype it. Right now they have GuardBots of several sizes, from a 6-foot monster to an adorable 8-inch ball they've nicknamed Harvey.

Being small and nimble helps the company roll with the punches. The customs agent trauma forced them to entirely redesign the guts of the GuardBot. The new GuardBot has a faster computer processor, more efficient batteries and a better pendulum design that the company hopes to patent shortly. The pendulum was designed in-house, but they collaborated with Panasonic on the processor, Ultra on the radio controls, and EaglePicher on the sodium-sulfur battery power system.

'There's enough room in there to get some pretty funky payloads,' Bersak says. GuardBot comes equipped with cameras. It can also have radiation detectors, radio listening devices, indoor Ethernet eavesdropping, a mini-water sampling laboratory and almost anything else you can think of that will fit into a ball 22 inches in diameter.

The firm's next step will be to start manufacturing. They have at least one contract for a few thousand GuardBots in the works, and potentially more, but they didn't want to disclose details yet. Keep your eyes peeled, though. If you're at the beach in Connecticut, and you see a large, black ball rolling mysteriously through the water, don't be afraid. It's just GuardBot.

Kim Krieger is an independent science writer. She has reported on science policy from Capitol Hill, energy from the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, and physics innovation everywhere.

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