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.
A Japanese robotics team dominated the field after an ambitious two-day competition that saw robots driving cars, climbing ladders and wielding power tools.
A two-legged robot built by engineers at SCHAFT Inc., a Japanese robotics firm, won the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials today (Dec. 21), scoring the most points across tasks that tested the robots' mobility, dexterity, perception and autonomous operations. Florida-based IHMC Robotics' humanoid robot claimed second place in the competition, with Carnegie Mellon University's Team Tartan Rescue rounding out the top three.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials were held Friday and Saturday (Dec. 20-21) here at the Homestead Miami Speedway. Seventeen teams qualified to compete, but travel issues prevented one team from China from making it to Florida in time for the competition. [Images: Meet the DARPA Robotics Challengers]
During the Trials, the robots were evaluated based on their performance in eight physical tasks. These included driving a vehicle through a designated course; traversing across uneven terrain and piles of rubble; removing debris from a doorway; climbing an industrial ladder; retrieving and connecting a hose; opening three different types of doors; using tools to cut through drywall; and closing a series of valves to demonstrate dexterity.
Team SCHAFT's robot, named S-One, scored a total of 27 points in the competition. The two-legged robot weighs 209 pounds (95 kilograms), and excelled at most of the tasks that emphasized mobility and dexterity.
Team IHMC Robotics had an impressive showing during the second day of competition, making efforts to close the gap between the top two teams. When the team's two-legged humanoid robot successfully navigated through three different types of doorways, the robot's engineers and the surrounding spectators erupted into loud cheers and applause.
Team Tartan Rescue, made up of engineers from Carnegie Mellon University and the National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., designed a 400-pound (181 kg) robot, dubbed CHIMP, that resembles a human, but rolls around on rubberized tracks like a tank to give it more stability on uneven terrain.
Here were the final standings of the competition:
Team SCHAFT (SCHAFT Inc.): 27 points
Team IHMC Robotics (Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition): 20 points
Team Tartan Rescue (Carnegie Mellon University and National Robotics Engineering Center): 18 points
Team MIT (MIT): 16 points
Team RoboSimian (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory): 14 points
Team TRACLabs (TRACLabs, Inc.): 11 points
Team WRECS (Worcester Polytechnic Institute): 11 points
Team Trooper (Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Labs): 9 points
Team THOR (Virginia Tech College of Engineering, Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory): 8 points
Team KAIST (Rainbow Co.): 8 points
Team ViGIR (TORC Robotics): 8 points
Team HKU (University of Hong Kong): 3 points
Team DRC-Hubo (Drexel University): 3 points
Team Chiron (Kairos Autonomi): 0 points
Team Mojavaton (Mojavaton, LLC): 0 points
NASA-JSC Team Valkyrie (NASA Johnson Space Center): 0 points
DARPA, the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for developing breakthrough technologies for the military, organized the contest as a way to spur the development of new robots that could one day carry out disaster-response tasks in the aftermath of natural or man-made catastrophes.
The highest-scoring teams will move on to the next phase of the competition, the DARPA Robotics Finals, which will be held 12 to 18 months from now, DARPA officials have said. Teams that move on to the finals will have the chance to compete for $2 million in prize money.
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