Magazine article National Defense

High-Tech Scouts

Magazine article National Defense

High-Tech Scouts

Article excerpt

Next-generation robots: bigger and better?

The exploits of bomb-sniffing robots in Iraq and Afghanistan have solidified their role as useful combat tools, but the technology needs to be pushed much further, say robot designers and engineers.

The military services currently operate nearly 4,000 battlefield robots - mostly to help detect concealed explosives, search buildings and clear caves.

The next generation of robots, however, could do much more, says John Bares, director of the Carnegie Mellon National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The center recently unveiled a sophisticated robotic truck that would be way too big for explosive detection or cave work, but could take over reconnaissance duties in dangerous areas where commanders may not want to expose human scouts.

The 6.5-ton vehicle, called Crusher, has been in development for five years, under a $35 million project funded by the Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Two prototypes have been built, and will be used in tests to determine their potential military and civilian applications, Bares says. Industries such as agriculture, construction and coal mining are interested in employing this technology, he adds.

Whether the military will welcome these larger robots remains to he seen, at least until they can prove their utility. Cost may be a problem. While the small explosive-ordnance disposal robots have a price tag in the neighborhood of $100,000, vehicles such as the Crusher could be far more expensive. The cost for the Crusher has not yet been estimated, says Bares.

But regardless of whether the military ends up buying the vehicle, the advanced technology in the Crusher could be adapted for other tasks. Most notable are the sophisticated sensors that allow it to operate autonomously, and its suspension, which permits the vehicle to overcome obstacles such as large ditches, man-made barriers or piles of boulders while carrying more than 8,000 pounds of cargo.

Electric motors embedded in each of the vehicle's six wheels are powered by a hybrid system that uses a turbo-diesel generator to recharge its batteries. Its top speed is 26 miles per hour.

Bares sees the Crusher as a viable candidate for the Army's future combat systems program. Under FCS, the Army intends to modernize its entire force, and expects to spend up to $300 million to develop three kinds of robots: a man-portable, a large "mule" to carry cargo, and a much bigger armed reconnaissance vehicle. …

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