Magazine article National Defense

Bug-Sized 'Bots for the Urban Battle

Magazine article National Defense

Bug-Sized 'Bots for the Urban Battle

Article excerpt

See that spider crawling along the sidewalk? In five years, you might want to take a closer look to see if it has a nanocomposite exoskeleton or cameras and infrared sensors for its eyes.

No, you haven't stumbled upon a Hollywood set filming the sequel to "Minority Report," the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick in which tarantula-like police 'bots scuttle through buildings to identify, people by scanning their irises. But you will have happened upon a technology that was inspired in part by the movie.

The Army Research Laboratory in April awarded a $37 million contract to BAE Systems to develop biologically based surveillance and reconnaissance robots to help soldiers conduct urban warfare. The terrestrial and aerial unmanned systems are part of a recent spate of Defense Department initiatives to spur miniature robotics innovations for troops on the ground.

Officials believe these insect-and bird-sized robots will help close the gap on surveillance needs not being met by the larger drones flying in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan.

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"You can't always get a Predator over there fast enough or with the right sensors on it to provide the surveillance, particularly if troops want to know what is inside a building," says Aaron Penkacik, chief technology officer for electronics and integrated solutions at BAE Systems. The company will lead an alliance of scientists and researchers from government, academic and industry laboratories to design and build collaborative robots that will provide troops intelligence whenever and wherever they require it, he says.

Imagine a Marine or soldier patrolling a city block when he suspects there might be insurgents in one of the buildings ahead. He stops, pulls several small robots out of his backpack and deploys them into the air and on the ground. They fly and scramble ahead, sending back images and audio to a handheld device monitored from the safety of his vehicle or under protection of his comrades.

Depending on what sensors they carry, the robots may be able to map out interior hallways, detect the transmissions from a radio and track a departing vehicle near the building. Based upon that information, troops can make better decisions on how to handle the situation.

Much of the technology already exists piecemeal in commercial and academic research labs, says Penkacik. The collaboration will allow engineers to mine previous work and couple those technologies with new developments in micro-electronics, signal processing and algorithms that will allow the small robots to be realized. …

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