4/24/2012
04:14 PM
John Soat
John Soat
Slideshows

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.




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


The Navy has tapped Virginia Tech's robot team to turn CHARLi into a robot that can perform fire-fighting duties. Known as SAFFiR (Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot), the mechanical firefighter will be able to walk and climb, feature a gas sensor and infrared camera to see through smoke, and be programmed to receive commands wirelessly from a remote controller.

Image credit: Naval Research Lab

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DARPA's Robotics Challenge seeks to develop robots that are capable of responding to dangerous situations and assisting with disaster response. Competitors are expected to create robots that can use common hand tools and equipment.

Image credit: DARPA

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If publicity can go to a robot's head, then Cheetah should be one proud mechanical feline. Developed by Boston Dynamics, which was spun off from MIT's robotics laboratory several years ago, Cheetah recently garnered accolades as the "fastest robot in the world" when it set a record at 18 mph. Cheetah is just one of the so-called "legged squad support system" robot technology being developed for the military, with potential for domestic police work.

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

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Boston Dynamic's Big Dog became something of a YouTube sensation when a video showed its human developer kicking it in the side as it strode around the lab. Big Dog staggered but stayed upright and a robo-star was born. Big Dog and its two siblings, Alphadog and Littledog, together represent the army's effort to develop robotic replacements for the pack mule.

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

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Some robots have been tapped for military service. The army has begun testing Boston Dynamic's RHex--a six-legged, 30-pound crawling robot inspired by the cockroach--in Afghanistan. With its sealed body, RHex can climb in rock fields, mud, sand, and vegetation, across railroad tracks, up telephone poles, slopes, and stairways. RHex is controlled remotely at distances up to 700 meters, and IR cameras and illuminators provide front and rear views from the robot.

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

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Also deployed to Afghanistan for testing is another in Boston Dynamic's insect-inspired robots, the Sand Flea. This rolling robot can jump up to 30 feet high, over walls or onto rooftops. The Sand Flea weighs 11 pounds and can jump 25 times per battery charge.

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

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ReconRobotics recently received a $1.7 million contract from the U.S. Marine for 126 of its Recon Scouts. The Recon Scout weighs 1.2 lbs and can be thrown into any environment, from which it transmits real-time video to help examine vehicle undercarriages, inspect bunkers and caves, and evaluate suspected IEDs.

Image credit: ReconRobotics

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Boston Dynamics describes Petman as "the first anthropomorphic robot that moves dynamically like a real person." It can walk upright or crawl on all fours, and was demonstrated doing push-ups. Petman already has a big brother by the name of Atlas. It's possible that humanoid robots used in DARPA's Grand Challenge will be based on Petman or CHARLi.

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

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Ekso Bionics, a spin-off from Berkeley's robotics lab, has received research grants from the DOD and licensed technology to Lockheed Martin, in connection with its body-enhancing robot, Ekso Skeleton. Originally intended to help soldiers in the field in terms of strength, endurance, and surviving catastrophic wounds, Ekso Bionics markets its technology commercially as an aid to paraplegics.

Image credit: Ekso Bionics

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Cockroaches have a reputation for being indestructible. That could explain DASH (Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod), a cockroach-like robot developed by the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab at University of California, Berkeley. DASH is small (10 cm) but fast (15 body lengths per second) and resilient (it can survive ground impact of 10 meters per second). Besides the creepiness factor, the crawling robots might be used as nodes on a dispersed network.

Image credit: UC Berkeley

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There are several robotics labs working on flying-insect robots, including Harvard and Ohio State University/Wright Paterson Air Force Base. But Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab did it the easy (or less hard) way, by attaching wings on its cockroach robot DASH. Gives new meaning to the term "wireless network."

Image credit: UC Berkeley

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Greg Trafton, a roboticist with the Navy Center for Allied Research in Artificial Intelligence, demonstrates Lucas, a humanoid robot, at the Navy's Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research. According to LASR, Lucas is a "computerized cognitive" robot, which means he's designed to act and react the way a person might. Lucas has a female counterpart, Octavia.

Image credit: LASR

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In Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army has used robotic ground systems to transport gear, navigate rough terrain, monitor remote areas, and search for roadside bombs. Pictured here is the TerraMax autonomous vehicle made by defense contractor Oshkosh.

Image credit: Oshkosh

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Scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech have built a jellyfish-inspired robot that can refuel itself. Robojelly, developed with funding by the Office of Naval Research, has two hemispherical canopies, which are made of silicone and are connected to artificial muscles that contract when heated.

Image credit: Virginia Tech

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