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Benchmark's surveillance robot scopes out potential hazards

Union Leader Correspondent

September 06. 2013 9:34PM
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte tests a surveillance robot designed at irobot of Bedford, Mass., and manufactured by Benchmark Electronics in Nashua on Friday. (BARBARA TAORMINA/Union Leader Correspondent)

NASHUA — U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte's visit to Benchmark Electronics in Nashua on Friday afternoon could not have been more timely.

The global electronics manufacturer, which builds a wide range of products for many different industries and sectors of the economy, has been working with iRobot Corp. of Bedford, Mass., to produce a line of small robots capable of entering an area and scoping out hazards and threats.

"It's amazing to see these levels of technology and the great capabilities these things have," said Ayotte, as she manned the handheld control of a 5-pound robot that Benchmark has named First Look.

Ayotte, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been committed to ensuring that U.S. troops have every technological advantage to remain as safe as possible while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With Congress debating whether the United States should retaliate against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, Ayotte was interested in how First Look and other robots designed by iRobot and built by Benchmark could enter specific areas and sense if chemical weapons had been deployed.

"Thank you so much for what you are doing to keep U.S. troops safe," Ayotte told a group of designers and managers from both companies.

Although the robots will eventually see all types of job openings in various fields, Benchmark General Manager Ken Desrochers said the work the machines are doing with the U.S. military and law enforcement is the most gratifying.

During Ayotte's visit, Desrochers held up a plaque with some twisted scraps of metal and circuit board.

"That's one of our robots," he said. "It got blown up, instead of a person."

Melissa Sturges, director of quality for Benchmark, said the company has had the chance to talk with members of the military who have used the robots in combat situations and have avoided danger and death thanks to their help.

"Our discussion with soldiers have been so emotional," Sturges said.

Ayotte wanted to know how the robots performed in difficult terrain and weather. Frank Wilson, iRobot senior vice president, acknowledged it takes time and effort to design a rugged robot, but added that the small First Look machines can be hurled through windows in order to transmit back images to whomever is handling the control.

Although Ayotte focused on the benefits the robots provide to military personnel, she was also interested in the economic benefits Benchmark and iRobot will bring to Nashua and Southern New Hampshire.

Roughly 450 people work at Benchmark's Nashua site on Innovative Way.

"And the average length of employment is 13 years," Ayotte said. "That tells you these are high-earning, career positions."

Gene Dempsey, a marketing manager for Benchmark, described robotics as an emerging field with all types of potential applications beyond military and law enforcement uses.

But Ayotte and the designers and managers from both companies said they were pleased with what's been accomplished so far.

"We're not just about building robots," Wilson said. "What we do saves lives."

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