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Disposable electronics could either degrade into environmentally harmless substances or get absorbed into the human body.
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.
Update: Last year we told about the US Military's desire to develop vanishing electronics (article below). Today, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- known as DARPA -- awarded two contracts as part of their Vanishing Programmable Resource project. To IBM, they awarded $3.5m, and to Xerox, they awarded $2.1m. IBM will be developing radio frequency technology that could shatter a glass coating on a silicon chip, while Xerox will be building chips that self-destruct when an electrical signal is received.
Self-destructing tapes from the "Mission Impossible" TV series and films served fictional spies well during the Cold War. Today, the U.S. military wants a modern version of vanishing electronics that are able to disappear upon command in the environment or a human body.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for such spy craft technology at a time when swarms of electronic sensors and communication devices already help U.S. troops hunt enemies, keep track of friendly forces and monitor threats from nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
Futuristic electronics able to self-destruct upon command would help prevent devices from falling into enemy hands and littering the environment.
"The [Vanishing, Programmable Resources] program seeks to address this pervasive challenge by developing electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner," DARPA said in a special notice on Jan. 25.
Disposable electronics could either degrade into environmentally harmless substances or get absorbed into the human body if they act as biomedical implants, DARPA said. The idea could fit with another DARPA project aimed at making "nanosensors" capable of monitoring or even fixing the human body like a swarm of tiny doctors.
Lab versions of vanishing electronics already include microchip components, biomedical implants and even a 64-pixel digital camera. But DARPA points out that degradable electronics based on polymeric or biologically derived materials often perform worse than traditional electronics or prove less durable — a problem for U.S. military standards.
Researchers must also tackle the challenge of making a new generation of vanishing electronics that can self-destruct upon command, rather than simply building varieties that slowly disappear over time.
The "Vanishing, Programmable Resources" program has planned a Proposer's Day on Feb. 14 at the Capital Conference Center in Arlington, Va. — a day for researchers and companies to find out more about DARPA's vision of the future.
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