WASHINGTON -- Charlie Vaida chucks a robot -- one that weighs about five pounds and looks something like a miniature Humvee -- across the room. It lands on the carpet, jerks up and rights itself, roaming the premises and transmitting video of what it's seeing and hearing onto Vaida’s handheld console.
This is the 110 FirstLook, a little machine that has wandered through war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping U.S. military personnel do reconnaissance. Now it's being marketed to law enforcement and public safety agencies for domestic use. Have a hostage situation? Need to investigate a bomb threat? Send in the FirstLook, which costs about $20,000.
"With the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of these robots are coming home," said Vaida, manager of corporate communications for iRobot, the Massachusetts-based company that manufactures FirstLook and a host of other "unmanned" products.
iRobot is one of about 600 exhibitors at the Unmanned Systems Conference being held this week at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The exhibit -- which resembles a high school science fair on steroids -- is hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, a nonprofit drone industry lobbying organization based in Arlington, Va. Organizers expect around 8,000 people to attend.
It's as much a public relations push for the drone industry as a chance for companies and researchers to show off their latest gadgets. Many of the firms represented here have enjoyed large defense contracts with the U.S. government over the past decade, but with that spending slowly drying up, sales representatives are emphasizing other commercial and civilian uses for their products and trying to correct the perception that they are exclusively instruments of war.
"There will be always be a defense market but it’s not likely to grow, so we’re seeing civil and commercial applications become more popular and more of our member companies selling their technologies for other uses," said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the AUVSI.
iRobot for example--in addition to making various unmanned vehicles for military use--is also the manufacturer of the Roomba, a unmanned vacuum cleaner; the Scooba, an unmanned mop; and the Looj, an unmanned gutter cleaner. It is putting the finishing touches on the RP-VITA, a robot that the company envisions roaming the halls of hospitals, doing the rounds while a doctor chats with patients via its video console. The Ava 500 is a similar device that can wheel around an office and let an executive check in on workers remotely.
A Pennsylvania-based company called Compunetix builds what it calls "command centers" that let dozens of people communicate during various types of complex operations. Yes, these are similar to systems that help direct military drones to drop bombs on targets in Pakistan and Yemen. But Compunetix command centers are also used by NBC News to coordinate coverage, said Gregory de Silva, the account manager for the federal systems division of the firm. They were also featured in the 1986 Tom Cruise movie "Top Gun," about a hot-shot Navy fighter pilot.
"My boss likes to say we are the Baskin-Robbins of instruments," said Gregory de Silva, account manager for the federal systems division of Compunetix.
Indeed, the array of products showcased at the convention is mind-boggling: a robot claw arm that its makers say is more precise than a human hand; unmanned submarines; vehicles with nuclear sensors that were used to deal with the Fukushima spill in Japan; an unmanned helicopter called the Scion UAS that weighs 1,200 pounds, costs $1.2 million and can be used to fight wildfires.
Yoge Patel, the chief executive officer of a British company called Blue Bear Systems, is launching in the U.S. marketplace a lightweight aerial vehicle slightly bigger than a typical toy airplane. It can be given a flight mission, folded into a rucksack and launched by shaking it slightly above the shoulder.
"It gets eyes in the skies immediately," Patel said. "It’s all about high precision -- you task it to go there, look here, and land."
Patel is part of a contingent brought to Washington by UK Trade and Investment, a government agency that seeks to develop new markets for British products and to collaborate with other defense departments.
What do they make of the negative connotations that many people harbor toward drones? Proponents of the technology say an unmanned systems is just a tool, as good or as evil as their operators.
"There are not [unmanned aerial vehicles] flying into Iraq doing what they want to do," said Adam Thomas, senior press officer for UK Trade and Investment. "It's what you do with the UAVs. Most have a manned component."
Industry experts say unmanned technology is an inevitable wave of the future, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration plans to integrate tens of thousands of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by 2015. Despite reassurances from authorities and the industry, public qualms are growing. Lawmakers in 42 states have so far proposed legislation that restricts the use of unmanned systems by law enforcement agencies, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Seven such statutes have been passed, mostly requiring a warrant for drones to be used in investigations.
West, of the AUVSI lobbying organization, agreed with other proponents that the technology itself is neutral.
"If there needs to be a discussion, it should be how data is being used," she said. "How it's being collected is not the issue."