Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Army’s Tiny Flea-Bot Can Jump 24 Feet High:

The military’s taken plenty of big steps towards fortifying battlefields with robot armies. Now, they’re taking a giant leap.

One that’s twenty-four feet high, to be specific. That’s the elevation achieved by the tiny, jumping Sand Flea robot, which will for the first time be battle-tested in Afghanistan this coming winter.

Created by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and Boston Dynamics — the latter being the same renowned robotics shop that brought us AlphaDog and PETMAN — the Sand Flea was initially commissioned by Darpa, the Pentagon’s cutting-edge research arm, in 2009.

“Anything up to 33 feet, and it’s easier to hop than hover,” Jon Salton, an engineer with Sandia Labs, tells Danger Room. “Obviously, this goes places you wouldn’t be able to take a tank — and where it makes more sense to jump instead of fly.”

The hopping ‘bots, each about the size of a shoebox, navigate on four wheels and use one rather mighty leg — powered by pistons hooked to carbon dioxide canisters — to make those impressive jumps. And the Sand Fleas could be a huge help to soldiers in combat: Each one is equipped with a camera and can be operated remotely, so that soldiers can send a Sand Flea in (or, for that matter, over) to scope out an area of interest or have a look around before putting humans in harm’s way.

“The tactical problem is, how do we sort what compound to look into and what not to?” Army Col. Peter Newell, head of the Rapid Equipping Force, tells Army Times ace Michael Hoffman of common situations in Afghanistan, where compounds are often circled by 18-foot walls. “What can I give the average squadron platoon that they can carry that allows them to repetitively look over walls?”

Indeed, a single 10-pound Sand Flea can make 30 leaps over obstacles 40-60 times its own height before running out of power. And the navigational system is so specific, a soldier can even direct the ‘bot to leap up two stories and right into an open window.

The ‘bot has some steep competition, as the military is already enamored with tiny, “throwable” machines that are tossed over a wall to perform reconnaissance. But if initial tests go well, Newell anticipates ordering “thousands” of Sand Fleas for use overseas. And should the ‘bots be designed to mimic their parasitic namesakes in more ways than one, we presume that AlphaDog could host at least a few.

Video: Sandia National Laboratories

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