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Electronic Design

Unmanned Systems 2009: Where The Robots Are

It was hot and muggy at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station’s Webster Field, where Curtis Ellzey of Engineering TV and I went to keep an eye out for robots that may have their eyes on you. The demonstrations were part of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems North America 2009 show in Washington, D.C.

There were lots of robots on wheels and tracks, and most were custom made. QinetiQ North America’s Applied Perception takes a different approach by partnering with Bobcat Co. to create a simple robotic kit that temporarily “roboticizes” any Bobcat Loader with selectable joystick controls (Fig. 1).

Bobcat’s vehicles are used in many areas, including Afghanistan, where the removal of roadside bombs requires vehicles larger than QinetiQ’s Talon Explosive Ordinance Disposal robot.

The kit installs in minutes, allowing troops to remotely unearth and remove large explosives with minimal risk to human life. The same approach can be used where vehicles need to operate in dangerous environments, keeping operators out of harm’s way.

Near the end of the day, iRobot’s Warrior carried a Packbot in a marsupial mode into a mock town. The Warrior dropped the Packbot through a window to reconnoiter while it ran around front to lead the charge of military personnel through the front door.

The U.S. Navy is equipping submarines with a range of robotic drones like the General Dynamics SeaStalker. This torpedo-style unmanned surface vehicle (USV) specializes in snooping.

Boston Engineering’s GhostSwimmer (videos below) takes a more fishy approach (Fig. 2). The mechanics and dynamics of this tactical, efficient, biomimetic autonomous “artificial fish” autonomous underwater vehicle (UAV) mimic biological fish to replicate their highly efficient swimming mechanism.

This mimicry makes the GhostSwimmer quieter and harder to detect as well as more efficient and maneuverable. The robotic fish can control its various fins in concert, taking advantage of artificial-muscle style actuators for actuation. It’s built using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

The GhostSwimmer comes from the Boston Engineering SCOPE project as part of a Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTR) grant from the Office of Naval Research held jointly by Olin College and Boston Engineering. The Olin College students designed the maneuverability and sensor portions of the robot, and Boston Engineering created the propulsion system.

There were plenty of flying robots, including the American Dynamics compact (4.75 by 17.5 by 14.5 ft) AD-150 vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) unmanned aircraft system (UAS). The vertical takeoff capability allows it to be used on ships with limited landing areas, but it’s equally at home in land-based operations (Fig. 3).

The high-torque aerial lift (HTAL) system provides stable vertical operation as well as high-speed (300 knots) forward flight. The AD-150 has internal and external stores with a 500-lb payload. The airframe is composed of carbon fiber and Kevlar materials. The control system has dual GPS with inertial navigation system (INS) support.

Much of my Washington trip will be showing up in Engineering TV episodes and in my Lab Bench Online column. Check out for our meet and greet with robots and robot designers along with more details and lots of video.

 Part 1

Part 2:

TAGS: Robotics
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