Military Robotics – Coming on in Leaps and Gallops!
Those who believe that one day soon humans will be walking the streets with robots took one step closer to this reality recently when a robot prototype reached a speed of 18 miles per hour.
Whilst the streets are safe for the time being from things like robot courier services, this is a big move forward in development for the prototypes’ makers.
Record setting robot
The prototype, or Cheetah ‘bot as nicknamed by some has been built by the company Boston Dynamics in Waltham, Massachusetts. The company claim that the speed of 18 miles per hour is a new record for a legged robot and whilst the new speed set doesn’t seem alarmingly fast, it is much faster than the average human jogger, and not a million miles away from Usain Bolt who ran at a speed of 28 miles per hour in the 100 meters in 2009. The previous robotic record was set in 1989 and was 13.1 miles per hour.
The development is funded by the US military – specifically the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and is part of their Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program which supports robotics research. Whilst Boston Dynamics president Marc Railbert declined to comment on how much the Cheetah development has cost, he was extremely vociferous about the robots running style.
Cheetah ‘bot replicates the movement of a cheetah, the fastest animals in the wild and it has been filmed running on a treadmill on all four legs and as Railbert states the run is much more of a gallop. The robot is supported by cables and a mechanism that keeps it centred on the treadmill but the company are already planning a free standing version that won’t have the technical stabilizers that Cheetah ‘bot currently has.
The aim of the whole DARPA project is for Boston Dynamics to develop robots that can support and help the military out in the field and ultimately Cheetah ‘bot will operate outdoors rather than on a treadmill. The company also hopes that Cheetah ‘bot will also one day be able to reach speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour as well as use zigzag motions to pursue and dodge, similar to a real life cheetah.
Use in combat?
Whilst DARPA are keeping quiet about Cheetah ‘bot’s exact purpose on the battlefield in the future it is thought that it would be activities like emergency response, travel over agricultural terrain and fire fighting.
The video of the treadmill trial can be found at:
A number of prototypes
The development of Cheetah ‘bot is part of a number of prototype designs by Boston Dynamics of robots with military and civilian uses. Whilst still early days the treadmill demonstration is a milestone for the US military as they look to create more mobile devices to assist in war situations. The fact that service men and women can be supported by robots that are capable of going where they go is encouraging.
Cheetah ‘bot is funded along with a flamingo bird like robot and accompany other Boston Dynamics creations like their four legged robotic mule which is designed to carry heavy equipment for soldiers over 20 miles without the need for refuelling. The company is also responsible for internet star ‘BioDog’ which is a robotic dog designed to stay upright on its legs despite kicks from humans. BioDog shot to fame when its online videos went viral.
Increased robot use by 2020
The use of robots in the military is no longer reserved for science fiction or the movie theater. It is reported that by 2020 the military goal is to have approximately 30% of the army made up of robotic devices. The image though isn’t one of R2D2 or C3PO from Star Wars, nor is it anything like a robot from Will Smith movie I-Robot. In fact the military use the word robot to describe anything from a self driving truck right up to what the general public would describe as a robot and anything in between.
Robots such as Cheetah ‘bot are already in use by the military such as ground robots for explosives detection and unmanned vehicles. Whilst they still need human intervention to function the increased use of robots in the military does raise new ethical questions such as who is to blame when things go wrong. However, it is clearly an area that benefits the current forces and advancements in military robotics can help to save human lives.