Floating Robotic Shipping Containers Team Up to Create Islands and Runways

DARPA wants swarms of modular robotic boats to form structures on water

2 min read
Groups of modular robotic boats form structures on water.

Well, it was only a matter of time: first, there were robot swarms on the ground. Then, there were robot swarms in the air. And now, we’ve got robot swarms taking over a swimming pool. Run for the hills! Or really, you’ll probably be fine running for any sort of dry land if you want to escape this swarm of robotic boats. But why would you want to do that? It’s not like they’re part of some sort of DARPA project that will one day take over the world or something. Nope, definitely nothing like that.

I guess we can’t realistically promise that any swarm of robots doesn’t have world domination on its minds. But until it’s demonstrably too late, we’ll just keep on calling them cute. And these robotic boats from the University of Pennsylvania are totally cute.

Mark Yim and his students are trying to get this big fleet of small robotic boats to cooperate to form all sorts of useful structures. By coupling together, a large enough swarm of these things is capable of forming, bridges, runways, or even islands. UPenn has over 100 of ’em, each one of which is controlled with a Gumstix and uses four separate motors to enable omnidirectional movement and zero-radius turns. According to this article in the Daily Pennsylvanian:

“Last Wednesday, the objective was to get the boats to form a bridge across a corner of the pool and drive a car across the bridge. The week before, the boats successfully configured themselves into an island for one of Engineering professor Vijay Kumar’s quadrotor drones to land on.”

Come on, that’s pretty cool, right?

What DARPA wants to have happen here is to (eventually) scale this system up to boats the size of shipping containers, since shipping containers are cheap, everywhere, and easy to transport and manage. You could fill a container ship with these modules and dump them all into the water near a disaster zone, tell them that you need a runway, and they’d all zip around and form a nice big flat stabilized runway for you. When you’re done, or you need something else, the modules will unhook themselves and either reconfigure into something different or queue up to get collected and moved on to wherever else they’re needed. It’s cheap, fast infrastructure. Let’s call it Instastructure.™

Oh, and by the way, naming all the boats after period table elements? Epically geeky. Love it.

[ DARPA ] and [ MODLAB ] via [ Daily Pennsylvanian ]

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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

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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