Kevin Fahey, program executive director of ground combat systems for the U.S. army, gives a keynote address at the fifth annual RoboBusinss conference in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. ((Peter Nowak/CBC))

BY PETER NOWAK — The fifth annual RoboBusiness conference kicked off here in Pittsburgh on Tuesday with praise from the U.S. army for the industry's help in fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The robots designed for the wars are making things easier for the troops stationed in those countries, and are ultimately saving lives, said Kevin Fahey, the program executive director of ground combat systems.

"When you do things like this, it makes a difference," he said in his keynote speech. "It allows marines to go home to their families."

Fahey, the civilian director responsible for developing, acquiring and sustaining the army's ground combat forces, told about 500 conference attendees that military usage of unmanned systems is ramping up.

In 2004, well into the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the army was using 162 robots. That grew to 5,000 in 2007 and will continue to climb to 6,000 this year, he said.

Most of the robots are being used in bomb-detection and reconnaissance missions, roles particularly dangerous to human soldiers.

In most cases, people are worried about losing their jobs to robots, but not so in the army, Fahey said.

"Any time you can get out of harm's way, you're interested," he said. "Even though I'm trained to go into that cave, I'd much rather have that robot go in."

Fahey was speaking to an audience of mostly robotics academics and business executives. The RoboBusiness conference is intended for robot makers to meet and discuss business opportunities.

Military use of robots will expand soon into the deployment of armed Gladiator robots, which Fahey expects within the next year. The tank-like Gladiators will be armed with non-lethal and lethal weaponry, and will represent a major step forward in modernizing forces, he said.

Armed robots haven't yet been deployed because of the extensive testing involved, Fahey said. When weapons are added to the equation, the robots must be fail-safe because if there's an accident, they'll be immediately relegated to the drawing board and may not see deployment again for another 10 years.

"You've got to do it right," he said.

Bomb sniffing, oil industry potential growth areas

Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot Corp. – one of the conference's major sponsors — in his keynote speech also highlighted the military as a business with huge potential for robot makers.

While iRobot is best known for its Roomba robot vacuum cleaners and Scooba floor scrubbers, the company is seeing big growth with its PackBot bomb sniffers, which are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other areas with potential are the oil industry, where robots can drill deep-ocean wells that humans can't, and in mundane tasks that people don't want to do, such as janitorial duties. In 2000, more than $80 billion U.S. was spent in the United States simply cleaning floors, he said, a pie the robot industry is well poised to grab.

Overall, the robot industry is growing briskly even though it hasn't yet discovered one breakthrough consumer product. While robot vacuum cleaners are gaining momentum — making up about five per cent of total vacuum sales last year — they are far from the holy grail of the industry, Angle said.

"We really don't have the killer application yet to drive things," he said. "There is obviously the opportunity here to do more."

Paolo Pirjanian, CEO of navigation systems maker Evolution Robotics Inc., predicted that breakthrough is coming soon.

Robot-making companies are disrupting traditional businesses, which are now starting to take notice. Many of them will come out with their own robotic technologies in the next few months, he said.

"These floor-care companies have to take iRobot seriously."