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Humans will retain key role in robot use

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:22 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Crusher, an unmanned robot built to go over terrain too rugged even for a Humvee, has become a “showpiece” since the Army scrapped a vehicle modernization program, says Tony Stentz, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.

With an army-green paint job and six knobby tires, Crusher rests inside Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville. A metal easel nearby touts its attributes: “Quiet, patient, alert 24/7.”

The unmanned robot, built to go over terrain too rugged even for a Humvee, has become, in the words of NREC Director Tony Stentz, a “showpiece.”

Once the vanguard of a new army of ground robots, Crusher lost its place as Congress cut funding for a program, Future Combat Systems, that had the goal of making a third of military vehicles unmanned by 2015. The Army's plan had risen in cost from $80 billion to $173 billion by the time it was scrapped in 2009.

The military has instead focused on systems to provide safer operations and to “overmatch” enemies, said Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann. Likely missions include reconnaissance, bomb detection and removal, chemical, radiological and biological detection, and medical care.

“Research in unmanned vehicles is moving forward,” Schumann said. “While many of the systems under development will incorporate certain autonomous behaviors … they will operate under some level of human supervision.”

Ground robots remain in demand, said Matthew Woodward, a CMU researcher in mechanical engineering. Drones and satellites can see from the sky, but soldiers need to look inside buildings and tight places.

He has been working on a robot that can jump and glide, mimicking the motions of vampire bats.

“Rather than sending a whole bunch of people into a building, which is very dangerous, you drop a huge bunch — a thousand — of these robots on the ground,” Woodward said. “They can go ahead, survey the area, check every room and report back what they find.”

Researchers at NREC, meanwhile, are applying the unmanned driving technologies to civilian applications, such as farm tractors and mining equipment.

One team is building a human-sized robot — the CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, or CHIMP — that can move on tracks and use its limbs to operate tools. It is competing for a $2 million prize awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and could someday enter a compromised nuclear facility, such as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Crusher's smaller cousin, Dragon Runner, emerged from the NREC laboratory. British-based defense company QinetiQ, which runs a research facility in O'Hara, acquired the technology and sold hundreds of them to the Department of Defense.

Remotely controlled by soldiers nearby, the robots go into areas too small or dangerous for humans. The larger model, which weighs 20 pounds, can lift a 10-pound object and has daytime and night-vision cameras, motion detectors and a microphone. The smaller one, at 10 pounds, can go ahead of troops for reconnaissance and bomb detection.

“We're on the cusp of being able to realize things that were in PowerPoint presentations 10 years ago,” said Todd Graham, QinetiQ's director of operations. “The Holy Grail is to have fully autonomous systems. I don't really see that happening in the near future, but I see a scale of assisted autonomous behaviors where the robots are given more and more capability and are able to do different types of things by themselves.”

Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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