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4/24/2012
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John Soat
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U.S. Military Robots Of The Future: Visual Tour

Meet robots that fight fires, climb ladders, search for bombs, and race across the battlefield. The technological singularity is near, say military strategists.
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You haven't seen flying, swimming, and fighting robots like these before. The Department of Defense is expanding its robotics research with new initiatives to develop machines that can drive, climb, extinguish fires, or perform other automated tasks. The ultimate goal includes using robots in dangerous situations that would otherwise put U.S. soldiers at risk.

In two recent developments, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) launched a "grand challenge" for robot builders, and the Naval Research Laboratory opened its Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR), which will focus on cutting-edge research in robotics and autonomous systems.

DARPA is offering a $2 million prize to build a robot capable of using human tools and navigating disaster-response scenarios. Contestants' robots will be required to travel across rubble, remove debris from a blocked entryway, and climb a ladder, for example. A humanoid form isn't required in the challenge, but DARPA does plan to provide a hardware platform with arms, legs, torso, and head to some entrants.

A previous DARPA challenge produced several automobiles that were capable of driving themselves. And a four-legged robot called Cheetah, developed by Boston Dynamics with DARPA funding, recently achieved a galloping speed of up to 18 miles per hour, a new record for legged robots.

The new Naval Research Laboratory facility will be used to develop robots for use by the Navy, Marines, and other branches of the DOD. Its work is consistent with the National Robotics Initiative, a federal effort to develop robots to help solve problems in defense, space, health, and manufacturing.

The U.S. military has been working on humanoid robots for years. Students at Virginia Tech College of Engineering's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa), with funding from DARPA, produced CHARLi. The human-looking, five-foot-tall robot can walk upright.

In many cases, military robots have applications outside of the battlefield. Last year, CHARLi helped Virginia Tech take home the gold from the Robocup soccer tournament in Istanbul.

Take a look at the other futuristic robots en route.

Image credit: RoMeLa

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