BEAR to the Rescue

Soldiers wounded on the battlefield while under attack from enemy forces pose dangerous logistical problems for medical personnel responsible for treating them. First and foremost is to get the injured out of harm’s way. That may be a very difficult task depending upon the severity and closeness of the fighting. Exposing the medic to unnecessary risk surely is not the best solution. It’s time to call in the BEAR™.

The battlefield extraction-assisted robot (BEAR) is a humanoid robot invented to locate and remove wounded soldiers under fire and bring them to safety for treatment. Under remote control, BEAR can be dispatched to gently pick up and carry the victim to a suitable location even over a considerable distance.

Designed and developed by Vecna Robotics™, the BEAR project has received funding from the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center of the U.S. Army. As noted on the company’s website, there are three main elements of the robot: “A powerful upper body controlled by hydraulics, an agile mobility platform that features two independent sets of tracked legs, and dynamic balancing behavior.” Much better than most humans, BEAR has exceptional balancing capabilities. In fact, it can balance on its ankles, knees, or hips even under full load.

BEAR has undergone a number of tests at Vecna that demonstrate its many capabilities for military deployment. Those tests included traveling over rough terrain, moving through a large drainage pipe, grasping and dragging a mannequin over a distance, retrieving and disposing of simulated hazardous materials, lifting objects from a high shelf, and placing objects on a shelf. In addition, BEAR has shown it can turn a handle to open a door as well as break through a closed wooden door.

According to a recent article in Gizmag entitled “Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot to ferry wounded to safety,” BEAR has been put through its paces over the past year by soldiers at Fort Benning in Georgia using simulated and live shakedown sessions. Results of these tests will guide Vecna Robotics in making improvements in the robot.

BEAR currently is remotely controlled via a special grip on an M-4 rifle or by hand gestures from a soldier wearing a motion glove. The rifle grip allows the soldier to operate BEAR without putting down his rifle. The glove, manufactured by AnthroTronix, has limited control capabilities now and will be replaced with a glove providing “more accelerometers and a digital compass to allow for greater control using only hand gestures—to instruct the robot to disable an improvised explosive device or travel exactly 500 meters east, for example.”

As noted on the Vecna website, BEAR can accommodate many other nonmilitary applications including search and rescue, logistics, surveillance and reconnaissance, homeland security, and warehouse automation. Perhaps the miners trapped in the recent mine explosion in New Zealand could have been saved if BEAR was fully operational. You may remember that rescuers were prevented from entering the mine after the initial explosion because of the presence of toxic gases. Even though there was no contact with the 29 trapped miners after the first explosion, there was a five-day window where BEAR could have retrieved the miners.

I know Vecna Robotics is pushing forward to make BEAR as autonomous as possible. Skillfully navigating the varied terrain of the battlefield, lifting the wounded soldier without causing additional harm, and returning him to safety with little or no intervention from onsite personnel are lofty goals.

But there’s more that needs to be considered. The robot must possess the capability to make some medical decisions and take the appropriate actions. What if the soldier is bleeding profusely and really shouldn’t be moved until the bleeding is stopped? What if the soldier is choking and could stop breathing unless his airway is cleared immediately?

BEAR must be able to accurately assess the condition of the injured and provide medical attention before attempting to move him. As everyone knows, robotic surgery under the direction of skilled doctors is performed every day in hospitals around the world with highly successful results. Can a robot performing life-saving procedures mostly by itself on the battlefield be as ­successful?

Paul Milo
Editorial Director
[email protected]

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