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Robotics

Software Increases 
Unmanned Craft Survivability

August 1, 2013
By George I. Seffers and Robert K. Ackerman

 

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing new control software to reduce the vulnerability of unmanned systems to cyber attack. This effort is relying on new methods of software development that would eliminate many of the problems inherent in generating high-assurance software.

Unmanned vehicles suffer from the same vulnerabilities as other networked information systems. But, in addition to their data being co-opted, unmanned systems can be purloined if adversaries seize control of them. This problem also applies to human-crewed systems with computer-controlled components.

If the research program is successful, then unmanned vehicles will be less likely to be taken over by an enemy. Warfighters could trust that the unmanned vehicle on which they are relying will not abandon its mission or become a digital turncoat.

This security would extend to other vulnerable systems as well. Networked platforms and entities ranging from automobiles to supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems could benefit from the research. The vulnerability of SCADA systems is well-established, but only recently has research shown that automobiles can be co-opted through their computer-controlled systems. The program’s goal is to produce high-assurance software for military unmanned vehicles and then enable its transfer to industry for commercial uses.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program is known as High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems, or HACMS. Kathleen Fisher, HACMS program manager, says the program is aiming to produce software that is “functionally correct and satisfying safety and security policies.

“It’s not just that you’re proving the absence of a particular bad property from the security perspective,” she explains. “You’re actually positively proving that the software has the correct behavior.”

Unmanned Submersibles Competition Challenges Students

July 18, 2013

The Office of Naval Research and the AUVSI Foundation are co-sponsoring an autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) competition, which supports interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education while increasing the pool of AUV ideas. The 16th International RoboSub Competition, titled “License to Dive,” will challenge university and high school student teams to bump buoys, park, fire foam torpedoes through a hexagonal cutout, deposit two markers into bins while submerged, and deliver two PVS mock pizza boxes to a specified location. They will be judged based on points awarded for how well their AUV completed the tasks. Teams also must create websites and write journal papers that outline their work.

Cash prizes will be awarded at the discretion of the judges; the 2012 competition first through third place winning teams took home $8,000, $4,000 and $3,000, respectively.

A real-time webcast of the 2013 RoboSub finals will begin on July 28 at 1 p.m. PDT.

Data Collectors Increase Intelligence

June 27, 2013

Robots slightly shorter than the average human may be able to connect portions of the offline world to the online world digitally. Knightscope Incorporated will soon be testing the K5 and K10 robots, which can autonomously prowl through large areas and small spaces, collecting significant amounts of data from their immediate surroundings. Applications include perimeter surveillance of military bases and inspection of power plants.

An integrated machine operating system autonomously guides each robot through defined boundary conditions; the sensor operating system collects data from the immediate surroundings. During beta testing scheduled for the end of this year, this data will be fed into the company’s network operations center. Use of the robots will be offered to customers through a machine-as-a-service subscription business model.

The K5 and K10 feature omnidirectional cameras, microphones, optical character recognition, thermal imaging and air quality detection.

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.


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