Electronic Design

Crusher Charges On To The Battlefield—All By Itself

It's seven tons of armor-plated all-wheel drive, and it lives up to its name. Developed by the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) at Carnegie Mellon University, Crusher is the latest robot in the military's Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle Perceptor Integration (UPI) program. Representatives of the NREC say that this unique robot offers new strength, mobility, and autonomy features for the military's effort to keep troops out of harm's way.

Crusher can take a lot of punishment. Pennsylvania-based CTC Technologies created its hull, which is made from highstrength aluminum tubes and titanium nodes protected by a steel skid plate that can absorb shocks from impacts with obstacles like rocks or tree stumps. Its 30-in. suspension, designed by Timony Technology of Meath, Ireland, offers selectable stiffness and reconfigurable ride height that can overcome obstacles like ditches, barriers, and boulders.

Each of the Crusher's six wheels has an embedded electric motor. A hybrid system powers these wheels, using a 60-kW turbo diesel generator to recharge its custom, 300-V lithium-ion battery pack. The electrical operation means that the Crusher runs silently, which can be a crucial advantage in battlefield operations. Crafted by SAFT America Battery Co., the battery also offers up to 18.7 kW-hr. And, the robot has a top speed of 26 mph.

Fully fueled, Crusher weighs 14,000 lb and can carry up to 8000 lb of payload and armor without compromising its mobility. Researchers plan on adding sensing and weapons payloads for rigorous field experiments at Fort Carlson, Colo., this summer. By 2007, Army personnel will operate two Crusher vehicles during representative missions in natural terrain (Fig. 1 and 2).

Mission planning, perception monitoring, vehicle monitoring, and payload operation will be merged into an operator workstation interface. The robot will rely on a combination of ladar and camera systems to react to obstacles and travel through mission waypoints spaced over a kilometer apart. By using overhead data via terrain data analysis, researchers believe Crusher will be able to analyze, plan, and execute mobility missions over extreme terrains without any human interaction at all.

An SBS PC7 machine powered by a 700-MHz Pentium 3 with 256 Mbytes of memory drives all vehicle control activities. While a custom PC solution would have been more economical, the team chose the off-the-shelf computer because it wanted to focus its resources on overall system integration and testing. Still, production versions may use custom solutions to lock down capabilities.

The system runs QNX 6.3. The remote command truck software uses a Windows application running under Windows XP, which will run on any modern laptop or workstation. The vehicle controller talks to various sensors and motor controllers via CANbus or serial ports and to the basestation via Ethernet. And, the team chose BreezeNET DS.11 wireless bridging units for communication because they provide significant performance with weatherproof options for low cost.

"In five to 10 years, we should see robots working alongside our troops to protect them and help with tasks in the field," said John Bares, director of the NREC and UPI principal investigator. Bares also says that Crusher and similar vehicles initially will be used in convoy and support roles before branching out into tactical missions. Potential commercial applications include construction, farming, and mining.

"With the combination of a robust, highly mobile vehicle design and an innovative autonomous control system, Crusher defines the state of the art in autonomous unmanned ground vehicles systems," said Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director Tony Tether. DARPA and the U.S. Army have provided UPI with $35 million to date to fund unmanned ground combat vehicle projects.

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