DARPA Wants to Give Soldiers Robot Surrogates, Avatar Style

Soldiers controlling bipedal robot surrogates on the battlefield? It's not science fiction, it's DARPA's 2012 budget

2 min read
DARPA Wants to Give Soldiers Robot Surrogates, Avatar Style

In the movie Avatar, humans hooked themselves up to brain-machine-interface pods with which they could control giant genetically engineered human-alien hybrids. It's just a movie, but DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, doesn't care: It wants this kind of system to be real, just replace "giant genetically engineered human-alien hybrids" with "robots."

In its 2013 budget, DARPA has decided to pour US $7 million into the "Avatar Project," whose goal is the following: "develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.” Whoa.

That word "surrogate" implies something more than just telepresence, and indeed DARPA does specify that it is looking for "key advancements in telepresence and remote operation of a ground system." But we're perfectly free to speculate on what those "key advancements" are, which again comes back to "surrogate." To me, the implication is that there's going to be some technology that effectively puts the user "inside" the remote system, whether it's through immersive VR or exoskeleton or some sort of direct brain control. Either of these things is a realistic possibility, especially if DARPA's tossing a couple million at the problem.

And as for what this "semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine" is going to be, well... You remember that semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine that Boston Dynamics built for the U.S. Army to, uh, test chemical protection clothing

To be clear, we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that PETMAN is anything more than a chemical protection clothing tester, except for the simple fact that just testing suits seems like a slightly ridiculous use for a freakin' super-advanced bipedal humanoid soldier robot. In any case, it's always fun to speculate when DARPA throws a bunch of money at some crazy new technology, and hopefully we'll be lucky enough to see some preliminary results before an army of robotic surrogates takes over the world.

Via [ Danger Room ]

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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

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

"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.

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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