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Robotics

Robots Rumble

June 20, 2013

Civilian and military bomb squad teams from across the country are participating in the 7th Annual Western National Robot Rodeo and Capability Exercise this week. Hosted by Sandia National Laboratories, the event pits these experts against each other to determine who can most effectively defuse dangerous situations with the help of robots.

The rodeo and exercise comprises 10 events that enable the teams to practice using robots and new technology in a low-risk but competitive environment. In previous events, one scenario included identifying, locating and disposing of suspected hazardous material stored in a residential garage and moving simulated fuel rods from a nuclear reactor damaged by a tornado.

This year’s competitors include local and state law enforcement departments from a number of U.S. cities as well as the Kirtland Air Force Base Explosive Ordnance Disposal team.
 

Meet 
Laser-Triggered, Origami-Like Pixie Dust

May 1, 2013
By George I. Seffers

U.S. Army researchers have developed micro materials that fold when hit with a low-intensity laser. The advance may eliminate the need for relatively bulky power systems—such as battery packs—on tiny robotic systems. It also could enable robotic microthrusters, unattended ground sensors, or even—theoretically—programmable, easily changeable camouflage patterns.

The microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are shaped like stars with four, six or eight legs. The legs fold—like origami—when heated slightly with light from a low-level laser. That folding action is accomplished without the materials being tethered to batteries, wires or other any other power supply.

One of the most likely applications would be a new kind of switch that prevents electricity leakage when a device is turned off. “You could turn on a structure or turn off a structure from a distance by shining a light on it,” explains Chris Morris, an Army Research Laboratory (ARL) electronics engineer who leads the On-chip Energetics and MEMS team. “And when the structure is in an off state, it would be truly off, unlike a solid-state electrical switch where there’s always some leaking through even when it’s off.”

Microrobotic applications are more futuristic. “I could see this as potentially being a way to enable very, very small robotic-like platforms where you have little legs that would move in response to light—and potentially even different colors of light, so they could be directed to walk in one direction or another depending on what color of light you’re flashing at them,” Morris explains. “That’s one interesting aspect that circumvents the current power supply challenge with small-scale robotic systems for surveillance and reconnaissance. The power supplies are so bulky and heavy that in order to get something big enough to carry the power supply, you no longer have a small, cheap, disposable package. You have something the size of a kid’s remote-control car.”

Holy Robotic Batwings!

April 12, 2013
George I. Seffers

 
Researchers at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, have developed a robotic batwing that could one day lead to more dynamic, dexterous and sophisticated wings for aircraft. The National Science Foundation, which supports the research, announced the breakthrough in its online publication Science Nation, along with a video. Unlike the wings of birds or insects, batwings are more like the human hand with many joints and skin, allowing bats to change the shape of their wings in-flight, researchers say. 

Researchers Develop Technology for Tailor-Made, Multipurpose Robotics

March 25, 2013
By George I. Seffers

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, are continuing to develop a robotic technology that can transform into a virtually infinite number of shapes. In fact, the breakthrough has led to some surprising spin-off projects, including research into aircraft control actuators and medical devices.

MIT first announced the caterpillar-size device last November after the original effort, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was completed. The original Programmable Matter project resulted in a device called a milli-motein, a name inspired by its millimeter-size components and a motorized design resembling proteins that fold themselves into complex shapes.

The technology could one day allow warfighters to design and build robotic systems on the fly to meet specific challenges—maneuvering through the space inside walls to gather reconnaissance information, for example. Now, the technology is being further developed in another DARPA project, the Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which seeks to improve the capability of robots to traverse tough terrain and to grasp or manipulate objects. “What our group has been doing is looking at how to apply our technologies for building structures from digital composite technology,” reports Ara Knaian, a visiting scientist at MIT, who helped design the unique electro-permanent motor that drives the milli-motein technology.

Three Companies to Support Marshall Space Flight Center

March 15, 2013
George I. Seffers

NASA has selected three companies to provide engineering solutions and products to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The companies are Radiance Technologies Inc. and Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., Huntsville, Ala., and Wyle Laboratories Inc., Houston, Texas. The performance-based, cost-reimbursement fixed-fee, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts have a potential value of $350 million. The contracts have a five-year performance period with a minimum order quantity value of $1 million. The three companies will compete to provide engineering solutions and products for design, development, test, evaluation, operations and training in support of MSFC flight projects, human and robotic exploration, science and technology development, future programs/projects, and other MSFC organizations that have similar needs.

NASA Leverages 
Video Game
 Technology for Robots and Rovers

February 11, 2013
By Max Cacas

Earthbound technologies and computer programming that make most popular video games possible are driving development of the remote-controlled robots now in use by NASA in the unmanned exploration of Mars and the solar system. Those improvements in both hardware and software also spur innovation in the next generation of robots envisioned for use by government and industry. That is important because NASA recently has proposed a new, multiyear program of sending robot explorers to Mars, culminating in the launch of another large scientific rover in the year 2020.

“The technologies and the software that the video game industry has developed for rendering data, scenes, terrain—many of the same visualization techniques and technologies are infiltrating into the kinds of software that we use for controlling spacecraft,” according to Jeff Norris, manager of the Planning and Execution Systems Section with NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. In a similar way, joysticks and gaming consoles such as the Microsoft XBox Kinect are examples of gaming technology hardware that have functional analogues in the systems used to control robotic spacecraft.

Micrometer Materials Form 3-D Military Tools

January 9, 2013
By Rita Boland

Researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Johns Hopkins University have discovered methods to control folding pathways and enable sequential folding on a millimeter scale using a low-intensity laser beam. Lasers at a low intensity worked as a trigger for tagging applications. Developers are fabricating sheets of millimeter-size structures that serve as battery-free wireless actuators that fold when exposed to a laser operating at eye-safe infrared wavelengths. The metallic structures may respond even to high-powered LED lighting. At the millimeter scale, the structures could attach, jump, apply friction and perform as mechanical switches serving a number of defense functions such as the remote initiation of energetic materials, micro thrusters for robotics and the attachment of transponder tags to fabric surfaces. They also could possibly integrate with logic/memory circuits, sensors, transponder tags and optical modules such as light emitting diodes.


Five Firms Awarded Autonomous Systems Contracts

November 30, 2012
George I. Seffers

 
Five firms have been awarded an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to provide program and configuration management, technical services, systems engineering, hardware and software development, material analysis, testing, repair, and installation services in support of projects for autonomous and non-autonomous systems, as well as, maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and information operations enabling technologies. All awardees will compete for task orders during the ordering period. Awardees and potential contract amounts are: Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., Annapolis, Md., $64,767,382; DRS Technical Services Inc., Herndon Va., $63,032,636; Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., San Diego, Calif., Science Applications International Corp.,San Diego, $56,761,735; and General Dynamics Information Technology Inc., Fairfax Va., $48,420,344. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, San Diego, Calif., is the contracting activity.

Navy Lab Bridges the Research Bench and the Fleet

December 1, 2012
By Max Cacas

A new facility allows scientists to test innovations 
for autonomous and unmanned systems.

A new manmade realm allows robots to learn how to scale sheer cliff walls, go from the ocean to the beach or cross hot, burning desert sands. In this environment, researchers can examine the machines’ every move and how they interact with human warfighters. And one day, these robots also may help save sailors’ lives at sea.

Whether it flies through the air, moves on the ground or swims in the sea, the U.S. Navy now has a laboratory dedicated to testing and development of technologies for the next generation of robotic devices. The Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR) opened this spring on the campus of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) along the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. It is designed to be a venue for multidisciplinary research into autonomous and unmanned systems, and is available to NRL researchers, as well as industry and academic scientists. The commitment to build LASR is part of the Navy’s overall push to make robotic devices a part of the future maritime force. The 50,000-square-foot facility was built at a cost of $18 million, says Alan Schultz, director of LASR and director of the Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence. Currently, LASR is home to Schultz and only four permanent staffers. But, he explains, LASR is designed to be a bridge between researchers in other NRL divisions doing what he describes as “bench science,” and the Navy’s fleet, where shipboard prototypes are built and tested to determine if they meet the needs of warfighters.

Era of Change for 
Unmanned Systems

November 1, 2012
By George I. Seffers

The next five years will be as exciting as the last decade--but in a different way.

Unmanned vehicles will undergo an array of changes in the coming years brought about by the war in Afghanistan winding down, budgets tightening and the national strategy shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region. Adjustments may include the retirement of some unmanned air systems, a stronger focus on refining existing unmanned planes rather than fielding new ones and increased research and development of land and maritime technologies.

The U.S. military will not be fielding many new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the current war, but the situation is not all gloom and doom, says Dyke Weatherington, director, Unmanned Warfare and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Strategic and Tactical Systems in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “The last 10 years have been very dynamic. We’ve seen rapid growth and huge increases in force structure. My guess is that the next five years will be equally dynamic in a different way. There’s huge potential for continued capability increases in ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] for the warfighter. I just think that’s going to look a little different than it has in the last 10 years.”

For the most part, that means the U.S. military will take capabilities it already has for UAVs and refine those as much as possible. Improvements could include fielding new capabilities to existing platforms, enhancing current payloads or reducing ownership costs, he explains.

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