K-MAX RoboCopter Starts Making Autonomous Afghanistan Deliveries

Little robot helicopters are on the job, delivering supplies to front-line troops in Afghanistan

1 min read
K-MAX RoboCopter Starts Making Autonomous Afghanistan Deliveries

Helicopters are the most reliable way to get supplies to some of the more remote outposts in Afghanistan, but flying resupply missions is dangerous work. As of this week, some of those aerial resupply jobs will be taken over by an unmanned K-MAX helicopter, which flew its first successful mission over the weekend.

The K-MAX is an unmanned (or optionally manned) conversion of the Kaman K-MAX aerial truck, modified for autonomous operations by Lockheed Martin. The K-MAX has that "aerial truck" moniker because it was designed from the ground up for cargo lifting, with intermeshing rotors that allow it to lift three and a half tons of cargo (more than the weight of the helicopter itself) up to 250 miles.

Over the weekend, the K-MAX went from "boy, this would be great if we could get it to work" to "now in preparation for sustained operations" after an autonomous cargo delivery to an unspecified location in southern Afghanistan. Using the K-MAX instead of a manned helicopter protects human crews, of course, but also allows for more missions to be flown more frequently, because robots don't get tired and are generally pretty good at flying in the dark.

K-MAX is currently being worked over by the Marine Corps, and if it checks out, the Army, Navy, and Air Force might all start to invest in an entire fleet of little robotic delivery copters.

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

“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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