Lockheed Martin Developing Flying Robotic Car Carrier

This flying robot will carry anything you want, including a car with you inside

2 min read
Lockheed Martin Developing Flying Robotic Car Carrier

At the AUVSI trade show last week, we spent most of our time wandering around looking for robots that weren't just slightly different flavors of quadrotors, or little airplanes with cameras on them. Things weren't as wacky and awesome as they have been in past years (possibly because the market is maturing a bit), but we still managed to dig up some very cool stuff. And one of the very coolest things was Lockheed Martin's Transformer TX, a DARPA project that'll result in an unmanned payload transport system that can deliver just about anything. Even a car, with you in it.

Originally, DARPA's Transformer program was going to be an actual flying car, like this:

It evolved from a helicopter-ish design into a vehicle with a pair of swiveling ducted fans, like this:

So that would have been fun, but Lockheed Martin Skunk Works had the clever idea of decoupling the car from the flying system entirely, and turning the VTOL bit on top into an autonomous robotic delivery system, like this:

The idea is that you can throw just about anything pod-sized underneath the UAV, including (potentially) a vehicle, as Lockheed's models show:

The best part is that Lockheed, along with partner Piasacki Aircraft, is actually going to build a flying Transformer TX. They're not going to do the car bit, at least not yet, but they'll put together a full-size version of the UAV along with one cargo pod and have it flying by 2015. The final test will involve a mock pod delivery mission; you might be thinking to yourself that you'd love to see a pod pick up mission, but Lockheed quite rightly points out that trying to engineer that level of precision would be a ridiculous amount of effort when odds are you'll just have a soldier there to hook it up anyway.

The production version of Transformer will boast a 250 mile range and a top speed of 200 knots. Thanks to the ducted fans, it'll be both safer and more efficient than a helicopter, and will be able to land in an area half the size that a helicopter with a similar payload would require. It's also small enough that you can stick it on a trailer a drive it down a single lane road, making transportation relatively easy.

Ultimately, Transformer will be autonomous enough that flying off with a manned vehicle underneath may actually happen. We may also see surveillance and strike packages, although at least initially, the focus will be on cargo. We'll be checking back in a year or two to see this thing get off the ground.

[ Lockheed Martin ]

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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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