To help keep U.S. soldiers out of harm's way, the Pentagon has put robot R&D on quick march.
By Peter H. Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) – 8

Just like in the movies, robots are about to start packing heat. In 2005 the U.S. will begin deploying war-fighting SWORDS robots, made by Foster-Miller in Waltham, Mass. The machines, which resemble miniature battle tanks, will come armed with .50-caliber machine guns or rocket launchers. Radio-controlled by a human operator up to a mile away, the robots move almost silently, climb stairs, right themselves if they stumble, and never get scared or tired. Using advanced cameras, laser sighting, and thermal and night-vision sensors, they are said to react faster than any human could, and to hit their targets with deadly accuracy almost 100% of the time, while allowing troops to stay out of harm's way. At least 100 robots, similar but unarmed, are already used to patrol streets in Iraq and Afghanistan, detecting and disarming roadside bombs. There have been some casualties. "The engineers take it pretty hard when we lose one," a spokesman for iRobot of Burlington, Mass., says of robots destroyed in action, "but we realize the goal is to save the lives of our soldiers."

On the home front, domesticated robots are finally finding gainful employment. The $5-billion-a-year global robotics industry has been dominated until now by industrial automatons that perform repetitive, high-precision factory tasks. According to a new report by the UN, however, the industry will more than triple in size by 2010 as a result of a population explosion among "service robots"--machines that mow lawns, vacuum floors, wander the house to keep a glassy eye on the house and kids, and serve as companions or assistants for disabled or elderly people.

Science fiction? Hardly. Consider this: iRobot, besides having sent a small squadron of robots to Iraq to help detect and disable roadside bombs, has sold more than a million Frisbee-shaped Roomba robotic floor vacuums in a little more than a year, at $150 to $280 each. Robotic lawn mowers, including a solar-powered one from Sweden's Electrolux, patiently chew the grass and alarm the pets on tens of thousands of lawns while their owners sip mint juleps on the hammock. Less glamorously but perhaps more lucratively, RedZone in Homestead, Pa., thinks there will be a $4 billion-a-year business just from sending submersible robots down to inspect and repair an estimated one million miles of America's aging sewer pipes. And perhaps you noticed that the hot toy this holiday season was the WowWee Robosapien, a knee-high robot with attitude. More than two million sold at about $100 each. Wowee indeed. -- P.H.L.