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Teeny Tiny Microcopter Deploys to Afghanistan With British Troops

Black Hornet is an itty bitty nanocopter designed for personal reconnaissance

2 min read
Teeny Tiny Microcopter Deploys to Afghanistan With British Troops

It's hard to tell how tiny this helicopter is from the above pic. But it's damn tiny. It's only four inches long (about 10 centimeters), and weighs just 16 grams, but will happily carry a pan-and-tilt camera that streams video back to a base station. It's called the Black Hornet, and it's . . . adorable.

In a military with an emphasis on big expensive robots like predator drones and PackBots, we're starting to see a different trend towards much smaller and slightly less expensive (but still quite expensive) robots designed for individual soldiers to use whenever they need them. No need to spend time calling in some sort of big fancy aerial remote sensing platform: you can just toss out your own personal recon bot, like so:

The robot is controlled with that handy little thumb joystick thingy, while you watch the video feed it sends back on a tablet. It self-stabilizes to make the flying easier, and there are autopilot modes including GPS waypoint navigation, hover and stare, and pre-programmed search patterns. The Black Hornet is nearly silent, has a range of 1000 meters, can fly for 25 minutes, and can go from pocket to flying in under 60 seconds.

When, at some point, every single soldier has personal robots like these to perform reconnaissance before putting themselves in danger, it's going to make a big difference. Heck, it's already making a difference to British units in Afghanistan:

Black Hornet is definitely adding value, especially considering the lightweight nature of it. We use it to look for insurgent firing points and check out exposed areas of the ground before crossing, which is a real asset. It is very easy to operate and offers amazing capability to the guys on the ground.

Black Hornet is a serious military robot, but we can't help but point out how much it looks like existing toys that you can buy for under $100. It's much more intelligent, of course, but at the same time, it's not that much more intelligent or complicated, and it's not a stretch to imagine a consumer version of this thing showing up in a few years. Just promise us you won't use it for anything nefarious, okay?

[ Prox Dynamics ] via [ UK MOD ] and [ Sky News ]

Images via TU

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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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