Unmanned Grape Suturing [VIDEO]

Operating an unmanned system can be a tricky task.  The display may not present an accurate image (see War and depth: Why your battlefield robot needs 3D). The controls might be sticky. The effectors at the ends of robotic arms may be inadequately sensitive.

Nevertheless, it is possible to complete a delicate job via remote control. Watch the video below which demonstrates robotic arms controlled by a surgeon suturing a grape.

(BTW, a You Tube commenter noted that the grape survived the surgery and went on to live a fulfilling life as a raisin)

The Russian Robots are Coming [VIDEOS]

Supposedly, by 2025, 30% of Russian military equipment will be unmanned. This goal is part of an ambitious program to upgrade Russia’s military. Currently, 10% of its military equipment qualifies as “modern.” They want that figure to rise to 70% by 2020.

It is tempting to dismiss Russian technology with the same snark that American defense analysts reserve for the transparently phony “super-weapons” seen in Iranian parades. See the video below of Russian strongman and Chuck Norris wannabe, Putin, watching the humanoid “Avatar” drive around in circles. Superficially, it looks like a crude cosplay of a Cylon robot.

While the “Avatar” looks ridiculous, not all Russian robots deserve disdain. Much more impressive are the firefighting Uran-14 and the minesweeper Uran-6. The latter has been used in the battle-scarred Chechen republic. Watch below.

The Russians have announced that they are developing search-and-rescue systems for the Arctic areas. We have previously reported on the Great Powers’ interest in the Polar regions as well as the opportunities in disaster relief unmanned applications. The Russians have had great success in designing equipment and vehicles for extremely cold environments, so their efforts are worth watching.

The Russians have heavily promoted their weaponized Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV), specifically the Wolf-2 mobile robotic system and the grenade launching Platform-M. We do not know their true capabilities. Do they have non-Lone Of Sight operation? What about sliding autonomy? What are their pathfinding, navigation, and internal map-making capacities? Despite the press releases and vivid photographs, there is more unknown than known about these UGVs.

It would be wrong to assume that the above weapon platforms are merely empty shells. Yes, corruption and brutal regimes has yielded Russian achievements that are more cardboard than real. However, I have worked personally with Russian scientists and engineers. Given the right environment, they can be astonishingly effective. While I am not worried about Americans losing their dominance in the unmanned field, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the Russians do something surprising.

To read about the Russian unmanned efforts in the Arctic, click here.

For a good summary of their military unmanned systems, click here.


DARPA’s self-guided bullets [VIDEO]

Every once in a while, we learn of a new technology that’s scary. This is one of those times.

Very few people in the current military are as respected or as well trained as the sniper. Along with unmanned systems and Special Forces, snipers have come to embody the modern face of war.

Snipers have a long history. Their skillset has continually transformed as weapon technology itself has been constantly upgraded. For example, once upon a time, snipers were expected to be proficient in making their own ammunition. Familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of their particular ordinance was vital to their ability to successfully make a long shot. Obviously, standardization and good quality control has rendered this particular talent obsolete.

Snipers are expected to be able mentally calculate wind direction, elevation, and other factors that affect the trajectory of a bullet. Ballistic computers have downgraded the importance of these mental gymnastics, but many snipers still learn the necessary mathematics. Like the ballistic computer, a self-calibrating smart scope also threatens to render certain sniper skills archaic.

But all these technological advances pale in comparison with DARPA’s self-guided bullets. Everybody’s favorite mad scientists are running an Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program. In other words, a self-steering bullet for difficult, long-distance shots.

“True to DARPA’s mission, EXACTO has demonstrated what was once thought impossible: the continuous guidance of a small-caliber bullet to target,” said Jerome Dunn, DARPA program manager.

Dunn went on to describe a live-fire demonstration that utilized a standard rifle.  “… EXACTO is able to hit moving and evading targets with extreme accuracy at sniper ranges unachievable with traditional rounds. Fitting EXACTO’s guidance capabilities into a small .50-caliber size is a major breakthrough and opens the door to what could be possible in future guided projectiles across all calibers.”

As demonstrated by the video below, an EXACTO bullet can change direction in mid-flight. How is this accomplished? One source states that:

“Each ‘self-guided bullet’ is around 4 inches in length.  At the tip lies an optical sensor that can detect a laser beam being shone on a far-off target. Actuators inside the bullet gather information from the bullet’s sensor allowing them to steer using tiny fins to guide the bullet accurately to its intended target. The bullet can self-correct its navigational path 30 times a second, all while flying more than twice the speed of sound!”

Bear in mind that the above quote was taken from an unconfirmed source. Fins on a rifled bullet? Could a laser-guided projectile adjust for fog and dust?  No one knows how DARPA is performing this magic trick and they are not talking.

What’s so scary about a self-guided bullet? Not the fact that people will be able to shoot around corners. Heck, that’s just one of the myriad ways a modern combatant can get killed. Also, there’s a real possibility that self-guided bullets will reduce collateral damage. Imagine a Predator UAV firing self-guided .50 caliber bullets instead of Hellfire missiles. The greater accuracy may mean a smaller impact area and consequently fewer casualties.

What’s so scary about the self-guided bullet is that, as the video demonstrates below, an untrained novice hit a long-range target the first time he used this technology. Snipers will no longer constitute a rarefied elite with difficult-to-learn skills. Virtually anyone will now be able to use ordinary rifles to hit targets a mile away.

That’s scary.

Disasters are good for unmanned systems [VIDEOS]

Suppliers of military unmanned systems are constantly on look out for possible civilian applications. One promising civilian application is their use in disaster response. Unmanned Ground Vehicles crawl through the rubble of destroyed buildings looking for survivors. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles inspect buildings, bridges, wharfs, and other structures for damage and structural integrity. Unmanned systems used in response to disasters are referred to as “Search-And Rescue” (SAR) or “Urban Search and Rescue” (USAR).

Essentially, USAR robots act as the eyes and ears in environments that that are too difficult or too dangerous for humans to go. Preserving the safety of human rescuers is not a trivial concern. According to Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), 135 rescuers died in rescue operations in response to a Mexico City earthquake.

Unmanned systems operating in irradiated areas of a nuclear accident is the classic example of a dangerous and hard-to-reach environment. Recently, the Japanese utility TEPCO sent a 2-foot long, snake-shaped robot into severely radioactive areas of the Fukushima reactor to collect temperature and radiation data. The video images created by this robot are the first we have seen of the damaged containment chamber. The information collected by this and other unmanned systems are expected to be critical in removing radioactive debris. For more information on the role of unmanned systems in the Fukushima disaster, see this blog’s post, Where are the Japanese robots?

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The first known use of USAR robots was in response to the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center. Personnel from Foster-Miller, iRobot, University of South Florida, NAVSEA SPAWAR, DARPA, CRASAR operated or contributed upwards to 17 unmanned systems. This disaster highlighted the potential of USAR unmanned systems as well as the need for further development. Read more about the use of robots at the World Trade Center here.

Since then, USAR robots have been used over dozens of times, as indicated by the following table.



All USAR unmanned systems (ground, aerial, and marine) are remotely operated. Autonomous systems are not used due to real-time needs. Operators had expected that mobility and hardware capabilities would present the biggest challenges. Instead, Human-Robot Interactions and sensor limitations have been the leading problems.

This short video gives an excellent introduction to USAR robots as well as the CRASAR’s role in deploying them.

The voice you hear in the above video is Professor Dr. Robin Murphy, Director of CRASAR. She has been indefatigable in promoting USAR. Below is an interview with her discussing USAR unmanned systems and their role following 9/11.

Probably, the biggest single limitation to widespread deployment of USAR robots is money. Institutions are willing to invest in machines that replace expensive workers. They are more reluctant to expend resources on costly hardened systems that may be used rarely or never at all. In the above referenced blog post on the Fukushima disaster, I concluded that financial concerns were the major factors in the lack of an unmanned system response.

USAR robots save lives and hold the promise to limit the monetary consequences of disasters. Governments and other institutions should be heavily investing in them. It remains to be seen if the deadly combination of short-sighted economic concerns and wishful thinking can be overcome, so the full potential of USAR robots can be realized.

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Ground Combat Vehicle [VIDEO]

The United States relies on its technological edge for military superiority. The problem with that strategy is that eventually everyone gets their hands on the latest technological advance.

The Shi’ite militias in Iraq do not have their hands on the latest, but they did get a hold of a UGV.  Obviously not fans of science fiction (otherwise they would know that armed robots always turn on their human masters), they went ahead and put a gun on this lumbering, exposed platform. War on the Rocks is less than impressed with this device, citing deficiencies in optics, wheels, and armor (the latter being nonexistent).

The Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) doesn’t look particularly fearsome. It’s slow, clumsy, vulnerable, and looks like it’s dependent on line-of-sight for control. The Operator Control Unit (OCU) is a fragile looking commercial tablet, not the usual AMREL-made rugged OCU, which was a common sight in the Iraqi theater.

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The militia does have the good sense to use a UGV for its intended purpose, i.e. IED detection. You can check the whole thing out in the video below. I recommend fast forwarding to the 2 minute mark, and turning the sound off, unless you understand Arabic (Farsi?) and are a fan of cheesy jihadist music

Unmanned Ant Vehicles [VIDEO]

Unmanned system designers are exploring bio-mimicry and hive intelligence. The video of “BionicANTs” below illustrates both trends.

Each individual mechanized ant uses control algorithms to cooperatively solve complex problems. Although they collectively perform a task, each individual ant engages in actions at a local level that are determined by autonomous decision making. Thus, they mimic real ants.

The ants have piezo-ceramic bending transducers in their legs’ actuators, which enables precise control and minimize the energy needed. Stereo cameras and floor sensors allow them to navigate their surroundings as well as identify objects that are to be manipulated. They communicate with a radio module that is located in their abdomen (the next time you are tempted to grouse about fitting a radio component into a small space, remember the challenges facing the designers of these ants).

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To build the bodies, the manufacturers used 3D printed plastic powder, which was melted layer by layer with a laser. 3D printing was also used to create the electric circuits.

The ants are also cute, in their own way. I especially like how they use their antennas to charge their batteries.

Future Soldier Technology [VIDEO]

Recently, we took a gander at “Recon,” a TV show on ArmedForcesUpdate. Their episode on “Future Soldier” is a step above most Defense videos. In a relatively brief time, they cover exoskeletons, invisibility cloaks, small arms, sensor systems, brain-machine interaction, power sources, helmet technology, and body armor. The role of end-user feedback as well as cost, requirements, and basic challenges are also mentioned. Intelligent research scientists are prominently featured talking intelligently. Best of all, the hard-driving rock music, which is the bane of so many Defense videos, is only minimally present.

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Autonomous truck  [VIDEO]

Ever have to explain LIDAR to a layman? Internal mapping? Autonomy?  In a brief period of time, this BBC video does  an admirable job of explaining in jargon-free terms some of the issues surrounding autonomous vehicles. This short video shot an autonomous 10-ton, 6-wheeled truck running through its paces, as an BBC announcer described the significance of its actions.

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SAFFiR, the firefighting robot [VIDEO]

For five years, researchers at Virginia Tech have been working on the human-like, bipedal Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). Recently, the SAFFiR was successfully tested on the Chatwal, the Navy’s firefighting ship.

SAFFiR used LIDAR (rotating lasers) to navigate through dense smoke across uneven floors. It located hot spots with its stereoscopic thermal imaging cameras, and dowsed a small fire with a hose.

SAFFiR stands at five feet, ten inches and weighs 143-pounds. Its electrical motors are protected from water by raingear.

It may have autonomous in its name, but currently it is controlled by human operators through a console. Eventually, natural language and gestures will be additional control options.

Shipboard fires are a nasty business. Not only do flammable systems and ordinances pose a threat, but also human firefighters may not have the latest training. Indeed, their responses may actually make the situation worse.

SAFFiR is bipedal so it can work in the cramped shipboard environments designed for humans. Eventually humans and unmanned systems will integrate into hybrid firefighting teams.

SAFFiR is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). ONR plans to expand SAFFiR’s duties to include checking for leaks, scanning for corrosion, and taking measurements.

Spot is an UGV You Can Kick [VIDEO]

Boston Dynamics quadrupedal Big Dog Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) looks pretty amazing in its videos. However, the smaller version, known as “Spot,” is even more mind-boggling.

The electrically powered Spot is faster and quieter than the gas-fueled Big Dog. Weighing only 160 pounds (Big Dog is 240), Spot displays an impressive agility while navigating stairs, crossing rough terrain and especially righting itself after being kicked (one commentator suggests that since the robot rebellion is inevitable, it is unwise for Boston Dynamics to abuse them).

One of the main arguments against UGVs with legs is their lack of robustness and engineering simplicity as compared to their wheeled counterparts (for more on this debate, see Walk n’ Roll). The progress Boston Dynamics has made with Spot and Big Dog undermines this contention. Go, Spot, go.

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