A few futuristic military robots in development

Marines are testing adorable robot guard balls, the few, the proud, the spherical GuardBot.1From the sea it emerges, a rolling orb-like object. One large black tire body with two side domes peeking out, GuardBot looks like a two-sided eyeball, straight out of an alien invasion movie. While the Marine Corps tests it as a possible amphibious scout, GuardBot’s original purpose is even more science fictional: it was first designed to go to Mars.

Mars didn’t pan out, so instead GuardBot is paying tribute to the Roman god of war in a new way. Because it is amphibious, it can go almost anywhere the Marines go, either scouting ahead from rivers or patrolling forward operating bases in marshy terrain. GuardBot isn’t particularly fast: at speeds of only 6 mph on land and 3 mph in water, there’s a reason it’s a guard bot and not a pursuit bot. It can last up to eight hours on one battery charge. The clear domes on the side of GuardBot contain cameras, so it can look in completely opposite directions simultaneously, like a chameleon.

In addition to capturing video, it can use a laser spectroscope to detect chemicals used in making explosives, from a distance of two inches. That’s pretty close to a bomb, which makes it a much better job for a robot than a human.

Below, watch it swim:

 

DARPA’s lightweight, inflatable robotic arm lifts four times its own weight.2

The future of military robotics isn’t all heavy metal and humanoid soldier-bots. If DARPA’s newest warbot implement is any indication, the future is soft, lightweight, and inflatable. The Pentagon’s blue-sky research wing is about to award $625,000 to iRobot to develop an inflatable robotic arm that can lift four times its own weight.

The Advanced Inflatable Robot, or AIR, is still very much a prototype and still very short of exactly what the DoD is looking for. But it’s a step towards what DARPA clearly sees as the future of battlefield robotics–lightweight, man-portable, soldier-deployable systems that can execute a mission (surveillance and reconnaissance, explosives ordnance disposal, etc.) safely while working beside human operators. Things like this squishy chameleon ‘bot we wrote about just last week.

The AIR arm you seen in the video below can only lift two or three pounds at present–not enough to make it militarily viable. But the arm itself only weighs a half-pound, giving it far greater strength-to-weight than the rigid, “gears-and-actuators” arms generally deployed on something like iRobot’s Packbot platform (these usually lift some fraction of their own weight). The arm below has also had its strength reduced for these initial tests. On operational arm could lift many times its own weight, and its air pressure would scale so that if it ran into an obstacle or a person, it would buckle rather than bash. That makes it safer to operate in chaotic environments with humans in the mix.

 

The indestructible military Meshbot inspired by inchworms can survives attack by bootheels and hammers.3

Soft, bendy robots could have a wide variety of benefits, from squishing into tight spaces to conduct surveillance, to crawling through a person’s body to deliver drugs or take medical images. But it’s hard to build entirely soft objects containing soft bodies, soft batteries and soft motors. A new version developed at MIT and Harvard is both soft and tough, inching around like an earthworm yet surviving multiple cruel blows from a rubber mallet.

The robot is nicknamed “Meshworm,” after the earthworms that inspired its design. Rather than using liquid, air or silicone gears to get around, like other soft robots we’ve seen, Meshbot uses artificial muscle made from a shape-memory alloy. It looks very much like a squiggling worm, as you can see in the video below.

Researchers led by MIT mechanical engineering professor Sangbae Kim took a flexible mesh tube and encircled it in wires out of titanium and nickel, an alloy that contracts and expands with heat. They separated the wire into segments, much like those found in an earthworm, and applied a current to heat some of the segments. This made Meshworm’s soft body squeeze together sections at a time, which caused it to inch along a surface. This type of locomotion is called peristalsis, and it’s the same action used by snails, cucumbers and our own gastrointestinal tracts (to move food into our stomachs).

The team examined earthworm body structure to come up with this idea, and found that earthworms use latitudinal and longitudinal muscle groups to inch themselves along. The mesh tube represents the longitudinal section, and the shape-memory alloy represents the horizontal muscle group.
The best part may be the robot’s durability. There are no pneumatic pumps, rigid gears or batteries to break, so the robot can survive all kinds of assaults. This could make it useful for military applications — DARPA funded this research. Kim and colleagues subjected the robot to a battery of tests to see how it held up, including smashing it with a mallet and stepping on it.

“You can throw it, and it won’t collapse,” Kim says. “Most mechanical parts are rigid and fragile at small scale, but the parts in Meshworms are all fibrous and flexible. The muscles are soft, and the body is soft … we’re starting to show some body-morphing capability.”

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Fabio Evagelista is a Brazilian writer.

Crossed Paths is the first book of the Myra-Hati trilogy, an epic adventure in a post-apocalyptic world, for the lovers of sci-fi / fantasy genre. This is the author’s first work published in America.

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