Thursday, March 20, 2008

More robotic creepiness (literally)

A couple of days ago Noah Schachtman published a very interesting look at a new robot "mule" (i.e. robotic transport device) being developed for the US Army.

The report caught my eye, but I didn't want to stop there. I looked up the Web site of the developers, Boston Dynamics, and found that they have no less than four creeping, crawling, climbing and cantering robots under development. It looks like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding their work. Very interesting stuff.

The first is the "mule", known as BigDog. It's developed to the point where it can carry 340 pounds of cargo, a useful load for military purposes, and it's agile enough to work on ice and snow, recover its balance after slipping, and climb steep slopes. The video below shows it in action. (The high-pitched noise is an engine of some kind - sounds like something out of a leaf-blower or edge-trimmer.)

Then there's LittleDog, which Boston Dynamics describes as:

. . . a quadruped robot for research on learning locomotion. Scientists at leading institutions use LittleDog to probe the fundamental relationships among motor learning, dynamic control, perception of the environment, and rough terrain locomotion.

Here it is in action.

Next we have RHex, described as:

. . . a man-portable robot with extraordinary rough terrain mobility. RHex climbs over rock fields, mud, sand, vegetation, railroad tracks, telephone poles and up steep slopes and stairways. RHex has a sealed body, making it fully operational in wet weather, in muddy and swampy conditions, and it can swim on the surface or dive underwater.

They're not kidding about its mobility, as this video demonstrates.

Last but not least, Boston Dynamics also make the RiSE:

RiSE is a small six-legged robot that climbs vertical terrain such as walls, trees and fences. RiSE’s feet have claws, micro-claws or sticky material, depending on the climbing surface. RiSE changes posture to conform to the curvature of the climbing surface and a fixed tail helps RiSE balance on steep ascents. RiSE is about 0.25 m long, weighs 2 kg, and travels 0.3 m/s.

Each of RiSE’s six legs is powered by two electric motors. An onboard computer controls leg motion, manages communications, and services a variety of sensors. The sensors include an inertial measurement unit, joint position sensors for each leg, leg strain sensors and foot contact sensors.

Future versions of RiSE will use dry adhesion to climb sheer vertical surfaces such as glass and metal.

Again, a pretty amazing device, as seen below.

I can recall the early days of robotic devices back in the 1970's and 1980's, when it was all a robot could do to weld a good seam in an auto factory. Looks like things have come a long, long way since then!

I can also recall the pain and suffering of humping heavy supplies across rough terrain during my military service. If we'd had a mechanical mule to do it for us we'd have been the happiest troops in the Army! If they can work out a power source for BigDog that doesn't make a noise to alert the enemy, I think they've really got something here.

There is, of course, the lighter side. A friend and veteran, Jim S., had this to say via e-mail about BigDog:

Of course the typical guy mind jumps to "Carrying stuff is all well-and-good, but how soon can we weaponize it, go from the C-1 'Mutt' to the AC-1 'Werewolf'?"

Imagine a pack of battery-powered silent RoboWolves sneaking through the perimeter. How many rounds, with how much stopping power, would it take to put one down?


"Sit! No, I said SIT, you damn toaster!" (Patrol Robot Handler)



Anonymous said...

The engine just needs a good muffler. That part is really a non issue. I suppose you could make it completely electric, but that would cause issues with reliability and range.

Of course, I have a different idea of what they should do with the tech:

Peter said...

Oooooh, yeah! A robotic saber-tooth tiger? I'm up for that! In fact, I'll present the first one to President Chavez in Venezuela and see how he likes a different kind of tiger in his tank!


Big Bad Wolf said...

Wanna see what a weaponized robo-soldier of the future might be like? Check out the movie "Red Planet"

MadRocketScientist said...

The difficulty with robotics has never been one of mechanics, we've had the links and motors and drivetrains and sensors for decades. The trick is the software. I've done some pretty basic programming for simple control systems and the math and logic involved is pretty complex. I know to a normal person the concepts seem simple (i.e. you are falling over, provide an adequate counter force to regain your balance), but the human brain is still leaps and bounds better than any computer system in existance today. The fact that they have a four legged robot that can navigate uneven terrain quickly and maintain balance is just amazing.