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DARPA's Newest X-Plane Concepts Are All Robots

It's certainly no secret what the air force of the future is going to look like, and it's not going to involve humans

2 min read
DARPA's Newest X-Plane Concepts Are All Robots
Artist's concept of the Boeing Phantom Swift.
Image: Boeing

Yesterday, DARPA announced the four companies that'll be competing to develop a new experimental aircraft that combines the efficiency of an airplane with the versatility of a helicopter. It'll be something like a V-22 Osprey, except that DARPA is hoping for "radical improvements in vertical and cruise flight capabilities." Three of the companies provided concept art to DARPA; Boeing's Phantom Swift is pictured above. And the thing that every proposal has in common? They're all robots.

Robots weren't a specific requirement for the VTOL X-Plane, but DARPA says that the best proposals ended up being unmanned. It shouldn't be a surprise that this is the case; in a contest based on speed, efficiency, and payload, including a human pilot would be a significant disadvantage: humans are fragile and require a lot of maintenance, and it's becoming increasingly arguable that a human in an aircraft has the potential to be more of a liability than an asset, at least in some cases, which may include (say) cargo delivery into dangerous areas.

Sikorsky's VTOL X-Plane concept.

Specifically, DARPA is looking for an aircraft capable of demonstrating the following:

  • Achieving a top sustained flight speed of 300-400 knots (555-740 km/h)
  • Raising aircraft hover efficiency from 60 percent to at least 75 percent
  • Presenting a more favorable cruise lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10, up from 5-6
  • Carrying a useful load of at least 40 percent of the vehicle’s projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds (4.5-5.4 metric tons)

“We were looking for different approaches to solve this extremely challenging problem, and we got them,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. “The proposals we’ve chosen aim to create new technologies and incorporate existing ones that VTOL designs so far have not succeeded in developing. We’re eager to see if the performers can integrate their ideas into designs that could potentially achieve the performance goals we’ve set.”

Karem Aircraft's VTOL X-Plane Concept

It's interesting to see how DARPA's aircraft programs have evolved over the last few years. For example, the Transformer program (this thing) started out as an actual flying car that humans could drive at the concept stage, and has since turned into a pure robot. In light of the Army's long-term goals, this is something that has to happen to keep things flexible and sustainable over next several decades.

Preliminary designs for the VTOL X-Planes are due at the end of 2015, and DARPA will pick one to build for real, to fly in 2017.

DARPA ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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