March 29, 2012

Engineers Draw Robotic Inspiration From Bugs

Boston Dynamics, robot creators and engineers, is sending two small robots to the US Army for testing. These creators of these two new robots looked to an unlikely source of inspiration to build these reconnaissance robots: Bugs.

Named the Sand Flea and RHex, the two small robots were developed with funding from the Army´s Rapid Equipping Force. They will be sent to the Army´s Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC) where they will await tests to pass safety and reliability assessments.

In a press release detailing these new reconnaissance units, Boston Dynamics said 3 RHex units have already been delivered to ATEC for testing. The Sand Fleas will join them later this year. The teams at Boston Dynamics hope these new tiny robots will help to improve soldiers´ awareness in war zones.

The engineers at Boston Dynamics looked to simple bugs to inspire the robots and infuse them with features, traits, and qualities of the bugs.

For example, the RHex unit is inspired by cockroaches, has 6 legs, and weighs only 30 pounds. Lasting up to 6 hours on one battery charge, the RHex can squirm its way through all sorts of terrain, including mud, rivers, streams, and rocky hills. The RHex can be controlled from 650 yards away and sends video back to soldiers as it swims, climbs stairs, and maneuvers challenging slopes.

As the name implies, the Sand Flea was created to jump around. When it is not rolling on its four wheels, it can be used to jump up to 30 feet in the air. The Sand Flea only weighs 25 pounds and can jump up to 25 pounds on a single charge. This robot gets its propulsion from a CO2 powered piston on its rear.

The Sand Flea can be used to jump onto high cliffs or rooftops. Once there, it too can send surveillance video back to soldiers. The Sand Flea can also jump down from heights as easily as it got there. To keep the Sand Flea stable and ultimately get good video of its surroundings, a gyro stabilization system helps to keep the robot level.

These robots may seem like something from the future, but it if the Army has their way, these reconnaissance units will be sent to the field as soon as they can be.

Once these devices pass through ATEC, the Rapid Equipping Force plans to deploy 9 Sand Fleas and 4 RHex robots to Afghanistan to complete the last stages of ATEC planning.

Once there, the bug-inspired robots will join a growing robot army, more than 2,000 robots strong in Afghanistan. These robots are being used to diffuse and dispose of bombs, check security at checkpoints, and gather reconnaissance and intelligence information for classified operations.

Boston Dynamics isn´t a stranger to building robots inspired by animals or to be used by the military. Last month, the robotics company sent a prototype carrier robot (called the AlphaDog) to DARPA to be tested. The quadruped is to be used to carry up to 400 pounds of equipment for up to 20 miles in 24 hours without having to refuel. Both the Army and the Marines have their eye on this creature, hoping they´ll be able to utilize it to carry important equipment and supplies into rather dangerous areas. This robot could also serve as a mobile recharging station for soldiers, as well as haul gear for the soldiers, lessening their load and thereby increase their effectiveness.

As the future of warfare draws closer, the demand for robots to perform tasks normally done by soldiers is not slowing down.


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