Robot Soldiers and Exoskeletons: Coming to a Battlefield Near You

November 30th, 2010 - by admin

Noel McKeegan / Gizmag & – 2010-11-30 22:41:58

Lockheed Martin’s HULC Robotic Exoskeleton MK II
Noel McKeegan / Gizmag

(October 28, 2010) — Lockheed Martin is putting an updated, ruggedized version to its HULC Robotic Exoskeleton through lab evaluation tests. The hydraulic “power-suit” now boasts better protection from the elements, improved fitting and easier adjustment, increased run-time and new control software.

One of several exoskeletons in development for both military and civilian applications, the HULC (short for Human Universal Load Carrier) is designed to augment soldiers’ strength and mobility over rough terrain. It’s a modular system made up of an over-the-shoulder backpack unit, which transfers weight of up to 200 lbs (combined front and back) through a titanium lower-body exoskeleton. On foot, soldiers wearing the device can run at 7 mph with 10 mph bursts and at slower speeds, a range of around 12 miles is possible.

Unlike the Raytheon XOS 2 full-body exoskeleton, the HULC uses power-assisted straps as “arms” to lift-weight in front of the body. It’s big advantage is that it’s untethered and in the revised version, Lockheed Martin says increased operational run time has been achieved using military-standard rechargeable batteries.

The form and fit of the exoskeleton has also been improved to make it easier for wearers to make adjustments and swap components. Along with treadmill and dynamic load testing, the ruggedized HULC is being exposed to a range of simulated environments and battlefield conditions. The company also has an eye on the obvious potential of the technology in industrial applications and other areas such a healthcare.

Raytheon XOS 2: Second Generation Exoskeleton
Mike Hanlon / Gizmag

(September 28, 2010) — The widespread usage of exoskeletal robotics to augment human beings moved a step closer this week when Raytheon demonstrated its second generation Exoskeleton, the XOS 2. The new robotic suit (think of it as wearable robot guided by a human brain) is lighter, faster and stronger than the original proof-of-concept XOS 1, yet uses half the power.

While Raytheon’s development is primarily focused on military usage, exoskeletons for the mobility-impaired are already at market and industrial exoskeletons from Japan, Korea and Israel are not far behind. One day in the not-too-distant future, one of these suits will enable us all to have superhuman strength, speed and endurance.

The XOS 2 enables its wearer to easily lift 200 pounds several hundred times without tiring and repeatedly punch through three inches of wood. Yet, the suit, which was developed for the US Army, is also agile and graceful enough to let its wearer kick a soccer ball, punch a speed bag or climb stairs and ramps with ease.

The XOS 2 robotics suit is being designed to help with the many logistics challenges faced by the military both on and off the battlefield. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has long harbored a desire to extend the human capabilities of soldiers through wearable robot exoskeletons to create superhuman strength, speed and stamina.

Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot to Ferry Wounded Soldiers to Safety
Darren Quick / Gizmag

(November 24, 2010) — The US Army is currently testing a robot designed to locate, lift and carry wounded soldiers out of harm’s way without risking additional lives. With feedback from its onboard sensors and cameras, the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) can be remotely controlled through the use of a special M-4 rifle grip controller or by hand gestures using an AnthroTronix iGlove motion glove. This equipment would allow a soldier to direct BEAR to a wounded soldier and transport them to safety where they can be assessed by a combat medic.

Built by Vecna Robotics, BEAR maneuvers via two independent sets of tracked “legs” and is able to stand up and dynamically balance on the balls of its ankles, knees or hips while carrying a load. At full height BEAR stands 1.8 m (6 ft) tall, allowing it to look over walls or to lift its cargo onto a raised surface.

To ensure it can handle a fully equipped soldier, BEAR’s hydraulic arms are capable of carrying up to 500 pounds (227 kg), while its hands and fingers allow it to carry out fine motor tasks. It also has a “teddy bear” face that is designed to be reassuring.

BEAR has been undergoing tests over the past year in simulations and live exercises by soldiers at the US Army Infantry Center Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, Georgia. These tests are designed to provide BEAR’s developers with feedback on the real-world operational capabilities and requirements for the robot.

Anthronix, the makers of the iGlove, which is available commercially as the AcceleGlove, plans to develop a new glove for controlling the robot that will include more accelerometers and a digital compass to allow for greater control using only hand gestures — to instruct the robot to disable an improvised explosive device or travel exactly 500 meters east for example.

The alternative method of remote control, a “Mounted Force Controller” which is mounted on the grip of an M-4 rifle, allows a user to control BEAR without having to put down their weapon.

Currently all BEAR’s actions are controlled by a human user but the developers are working to give BEAR more complicated semi-autonomous behaviors that will allow it to understand and carry out increasingly complicated commands.

Vecna Robotics says BEAR could also be used for search and rescue, handling hazardous materials, surveillance and reconnaissance, mine inspection, lifting hospital patients, or even warehouse automation. However, the battlefield is where we’re probably most likely to first see BEAR.

“If robots could be used in the face of threats such as urban combat, booby-trapped IEDs, and chemical and biological weapons, it could save medics’ and fellow soldiers’ lives,” says Gary Gilbert of the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), which helped fund BEAR’s development.

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