By Gregory Mone
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(PopSci.com) -- The RedOwl is a robotic head that looks more like a PowerPoint projector than a sharpshooter's worst enemy. But don't let its Circuit City appearance fool you.
Controlled by a laptop-wielding soldier, the RedOwl's superior senses can read a nametag from across a football field and identify the make and model of a rifle fired a mile away simply by analyzing the sound of the distant blast.
And soon it could be putting its powers to use in Iraq.
RedOwl's developer, Glenn Thoren, now a director at Insight Technology in Londonderry, New Hampshire, says several prototypes have finished an intensive 10-week field test at Fort Benning in Georgia.
Given the defense department's budget approval early this year, he hopes the $150,000 sniper-finders will be in Iraq by this spring.
The robot's mechanical ears were originally designed to improve hearing aides. But Thoren, then with Boston University's Photonics Center, which heads the RedOwl project, thought up a new application after learning of a spike in sniper activity surrounding Iraqi hotspots like Abu Ghraib prison.
He combined the original listening system -- which processes sound received by four microphones to determine the direction and elevation of a noise -- with a suite of sensors, spotlights and a laser rangefinder.
When the RedOwl hears gunfire, it swivels its head toward the source of the noise. A thermal imager can pick out the sniper while an infrared spotlight illuminates him for night-vision-equipped troops.
Attached to a PackBot, a miniature robot tank built by iRobot in Burlington, Massachusetts, and steered by a modified Xbox videogame controller, the RedOwl can also enter dangerous buildings in advance of soldiers.
"We're hoping to put the robot in situations where it would be less safe for a soldier," Thoren says.
How it works:
A new robotic head can pinpoint the location of enemy shooters and call in the cavalry.
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