Big and Little Robot Team Up to Tackle Terrain
UC Berkeley/ETH Zurich via Youtube
Together, the robots are able to classify terrain as either slippery or safe to walk on with an accuracy of over 90 percent.
Every day brings new headlines of the warfighting capabilities of drones patrolling the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and any number of places where strife continues.
While pilots operate the drones remotely from bases back in the U.S., there are a host of smaller robots that deserve a bit of attention as well. From scrubbing barnacles off aircraft carriers to spying on bad guys from the clouds, this new class of autonomous military robot could see action on or near the battlefield in the coming year.
Here, Lance Corporal Joe Henkel checks out the MARCbot iV, a remote-controlled robot used in IED investigations.
American Unmanned Systems
This spherical, 54-pound bot rolls across land, mud, rocks and water with a spy camera hidden inside its fiberglass shell. An internal pendulum keeps the two cameras stabilized as the shell rotates and provides motion.
Connecticut-based American Unmanned Systems initially designed Guardbot to rove across the Martian surface for a European Space Agency mission that was later scrubbed, so president Peter Muhlrad switched to military and commercial applications, mainly guard and reconnaissance duty. It was also deployed recently by a Mexican television network during a live soccer match at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium.
Guardbot is undergoing tests by the Marines in Quantico, Va., and Camp LeJeune, N.C., Muhlrad said. An aquarium in Florida is also interested in using Guardbot to interact with its dolphins.
World Surveillance Group Inc.
Argus One AUV
This 113-foot flexible airship drone "wiggles like a snake" when faced with strong winds, rather than being tossed around like a balloon, said Dan Erdberg, director of business development for World Surveillance Group Inc., based at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. That means it can hover in at 10,000 to 15,000 feet above a target with minimal effort.
The helium-filled composite material bags are covered with an outer layer of ripstop nylon. Argus One also has a stealthy, almost-zero radar footprint, making it nearly invisible while supporting a platform of high-resolution spy cameras or other remote-sensing devices, Erdberg said.
"This could dwell over an area for a long time, if it sees people you could send in one with arms," he said. "It's in the clouds and literally impossible to pick up."
Argus is undergoing tests at the Department of Energy's Nevada test facility in December (that's next door to the infamous Area 51).
As any boat owner knows, scraping barnacles is the bane of a sailor's existence. But for the Navy, "marine bio-fouling" of sea grasses, barnacle colonies and tube warms costs taxpayers an estimated $1 billion a year.
That's because ships coated with this biological material travel more slowly through the water, and so their engines burn more fuel. Sea Robotics "Hull Bug" crawls across the ship's hull cleaning bio-junk without using harsh copper- based chemicals that can damage the marine environment.
Sea Robotics President Don Darling says the device sticks to the hull using a special negative pressure device, and cleans with spinning rotor brushes.
Autonomous sensors look for bio-material without the need of an operator guiding it -- and Darling says it can clean an entire ship in a day while it's docked in port.
iRobot Warrior 710
This Bedford, Mass.-based maker of robotic vacuum cleaners, gutter routers and kids toys also supplies ground-based rovers to the military.
At configurations up to 500 pounds, the new Warrior 710 is significantly bigger and brawnier than previous models and can pick up a 220-pound object within six feet, according to Tim Trainer, vice president operations for iRobot's government and industrial robots division. The Warrior 710 climbs stairs and slopes up to a 45-degree angle, rolls over rocks and can carry 150 pounds.
It's designed for IED disposal and clearing buildings. This robot also has a delicate extendable hand that can move around corners, open a car door and remove a bomb on its own.
Engineers at Lockheed Martin's research lab took inspiration from maple seeds that whirl through the air as they drop.
The Samarai Flyer weighs less than half a pound and is 16 inches long -- ideal for stuffing in a backpack and launching by hand.
It can take off from the ground with its mini-spy camera or possibly an armament package. It's mechanically simple with only two moving parts, and was built using 3-D printing technology for its maiden public flight in August. Check out video here.
Bill Borgia, leader of Lockheed Martin's intelligent robotics laboratory, says the camera spins at the same rate as the body, but special stop-motion video software cancels out the rotation and allows the operator to get a steady stream of images.
"You could take this out of your backpack, throw it like a boomerang and see around a corner of a building or over outside a window and see if there are any bad guys inside," Borgia said.
The biggest engineering challenge is to boost the Samarai Flyer's endurance, according to Borgia. Hopefully next year it will hover for more than 30 minutes, he said.
Humans, robots, and anything else with legs can have issues with navigating terrain that's rough, sticky, or slippery. Navigating dangerous terrain like this isn't necessarily a problem, as long as there's a little bit of advanced warning. Imagine the difference between walking out onto an icy sidewalk that you are expecting, as opposed to walking out onto an icy sidewalk that you're not expecting.
The tricky thing is that "expecting" bit: short of actually stepping on a surface, how do you know what to expect? A robot can try relying on sensors to identify and avoid slippery terrain, but researchers from UC Berkeley and ETH Zurich came up with another effective strategy, which they presented last week at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA).
The strategy consists in using teams of robots and sending some of them ahead of the others, to see if they slip and fall. This approach can get expensive, unless you use a heterogeneous team: one big expensive robot that you care about, with a bunch of little cheap robots that you don't, acting as a picket line of terrain scouts. Here's a video demonstrating the concept:
You might recognize both of the robots in this video: the big one is ETH Zurich's StarlETH quadruped, while the little one is VelociRoACH, from UC Berkeley. VelociRoACH's job is to scurry around ahead of StarlETH, exploring the terrain. StarlETH watches the optical tag on VelociRoACH's back to see how the little robot is doing, and VelociRoACH also sends back IMU data.
Together, the robots are able to classify terrain as either slippery or safe to walk on with an accuracy of over 90 percent, and since StarlETH is able to localize VelociRoACH as it scampers around, StarlETH knows exactly where it is (or isn't) safe to step.
The risk here is that your poor little scout robot might end up stumbling onto a piece of terrain that's so dangerous that it gets stuck. This is better than your primary robot getting stuck (and the scout robot is still accomplishing what it was intended to accomplish by warning the primary robot of the danger), but you need to be prepared to consider these scout robots as expendable, which is why VelociRoACH is the robot of choice, as it's made mostly of cardboard, and you can just toss a bunch more into the mix to replace any robots that you may lose.
While the video above shows a demo with just one scout robot, using multiple robots would be even more effective. And since they're cheap, there's no reason not to use lots of them. Future work will experiment with formations of picket robots to more effectively map larger areas of potentially hazardous terrain.
Oh, and the most potentially hazardous terrain of all? Right underneath the foot of StarlETH, at least as far as VelociRoACH is concerned.
Luckily, VelociRoACH isn't just cheap, it's also durable, as lead author Duncan Haldane told us: "After VelociRoACH got stepped on, we just pulled it out and kept running it. No problems."
"Detection of Slippery Terrain with a Heterogeneous Team of Legged Robots," by Duncan W. Haldane, Peter Fankhauser, Roland Siegwart, and Ronald S. Fearing, from UC Berkeley and ETH Zurich, was presented last week at ICRA 2014 in Hong Kong.
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