Government Seeks ‘Dog-Like,’ Throwable and Other Robots

A woman disinfects her hands from a mobile robot that carries a container of sanitization liquid at Central World, an upmarket shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand in May 2020.

A woman disinfects her hands from a mobile robot that carries a container of sanitization liquid at Central World, an upmarket shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand in May 2020. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Several recent notices and announcements point to agencies’ ongoing and planned use of the futuristic machines.

The Air Force has fresh needs for not-so-large robots, according to two notices published online this weekend—and several non-military agencies are also working this month to meet modern demands with different types of the evolving, electronic machines.

“[A] four-legged dog-like robot to help patrol small battle spaces and provide needed data resources,” is one product the Air Force is considering, officials confirmed in a request for information released Sunday.

Specifically, the service expects to use such a device for help with deterrence, detection and more in environments with low light and across restricted areas. The robot would need to operate “in all terrain and weather conditions,” have WiFi and 4G/LTE capabilities, and either follow a preprogrammed course or be manually directed, among other elements. 

The service is also interested in a throwbot, or “throw-able micro-robot that enables operators to obtain instantaneous video and audio reconnaissance within indoor or outdoor environments.” In a separate document published Saturday, the Air Force listed applications envisioned for this technology including for locating subjects, or confirming the presence of hostages in risky locations. It would essentially be used to move through structures, sending back real-time videos of all that’s inside.

The posts each list particular industry-made products the Air Force already identified and could possibly use to fulfill these capabilities—but as part of market research, officials invite interested parties to respond with information about their relevant solutions by Feb. 12.

Those notices come after officials from the Air Force and other services have expressed intent to further robotics use in the coming years, though that trend likely isn’t limited to the military.

A sources sought notice published by the Agriculture Department last week revealed its plant genetics research unit intends to request quotes for “a new, fully integrated field phenotyping rover/robot to quickly and accurately phenotype corn plants in the field.” The agency lists a range of requirements that would need to be met, including that the machine can drive in single field passes semi-autonomously, and that it can upload data to the cloud. Back in 2020, USDA already bought such a plant phenotyping tool that met all its listed specifications, the document said, so the new one will need to incorporate those, to ensure the two are scientifically comparable.

The farm-focused agency’s deadline for responses is set for Feb. 12.

The National Institutes of Standards and Technology also currently wants to buy sensors and tools compatible with a measurement science-aligned robot that supports experimentation within its engineering laboratory.

And while those agencies are looking ahead, health care professionals in some parts of the Veterans Affairs Department are also witnessing real-world impacts of disinfection robots firsthand, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic carries on.

In a release published Sunday, VA detailed how four UVC light-emitting robots are helping to add deeper levels of safety and cleanliness—by reducing potentially harmful microorganisms—within its Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System. Already in operation, they are each an individual Tru-D Smart UVC Disinfection robot cleaning system.

“UVC light like the kind produced by the robot is an effective tool in neutralizing bacteria and viruses,” Kelvin Spencer, an environmental care specialist in VA’s Environmental Management Service said. “We’re excited to have this option to ensure our facilities are clean for our veterans.”

A Naval hospital purchased its own germ-killing robot last year, and self-moving, decontamination machines were also listed among small business solutions that the Transportation Department is open to funding soon.