Do you have a robot car yet? Me neither. The military, on the other hand, has a bunch of them. These UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) are mostly used for hauling gear, sort of like mules used to, back in the day. Lockheed Martin even had one called MULE. It was a nice idea, getting robots to do this, but it's not simple and it's not cheap, and the military has been cutting back. So, the companies involved have been trying to figure out what else they can do with their UGVs.
Many of these UGVs are totally ready to go, in that they've already been deployed overseas for testing with troops. They're not ready to be driving around streets in public, but in supervised, restricted, or otherwise controlled situations, they're safe and capable.
Companies like Lockheed and John Deere are exploring a range of different potential markets for their UGVs, most of which fall into those familiar "dull, dirty, or dangerous" categories. Things like autonomous security patrols probably won't surprise you, nor will long term and long range border patrols in remote and rugged and generally nasty terrain. But there may be other, less obvious applications for UGVs, including agriculture, mining, and construction. Both Lockheed and John Deere are actively developing applications like these, even as they continue their military contracts. Personally, I can't wait until I can go down to my local hardware store and buy one of these (skip to 1:00 to see why):
Here's another little surprise: National Defense Magazine spoke to Boston Dynamics president Marc Raibert, who said that his company sees many commercial and public safety applications for its robots. Raibert mentioned the Fukushima accident as an example of where robots could help:
“If we had better robots available during the Fukushima accident it may have been easier and quicker to get things under control,” he said.
Um, commercial applications? I'm just going to assume that Boston Dynamics is going to make
us all BigDogs that we can ride.
[ National Defense Magazine ] via [ Robohub ]
Updated 28 June 2013 9:48 p.m.: Edits made to clarify Marc Raibert's comments.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.