In all the futuristic visions of robotic technology, there’s always one buzzkill that brings them back to reality: the power source. How do you keep robots rolling smoothly? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the development of a robot that may have the answer to this.
According to company president Dr. Robert Finkelstein, Robotic Technology, Inc. of Potomac, Md., is developing the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR), an unmanned vehicle robot designed to collect biomass — leaves, wood, grass, anything combustible — and use it through burning to fuel itself.
“The idea is to have a robotic ground vehicle that can go out on long-range, long-endurance missions without human intervention,” says Finkelstein, describing it as the ground equivalent of long-range unmanned air vehicles. The EATR will be able to retrieve items of interest as well, or act as a weapons platform.
“In order to avoid refueling, it will forage, like an animal, obtaining its own energy from the environment by finding and ingesting biomass from the environment,” he adds. “It might have a satellite link back to a control center where it can make reports, but it doesn’t need to be continuously controlled.”
The control system is based on the National Institute of Standards and Measurement’s 4DRCS (four-dimensional real-time control system). This contains the software for processing sensor data, notes Finkelstein, which includes laser detection and ranging (LADAR) sensors, active or passive video, and the ability to tell the difference between potential fuel sources and other items, such as rocks and metal.
The robot also incorporates an arm-and-hand subsystem designed to manipulate biomass, cutting, grasping and inserting it into an internal combustion chamber. The chamber in turn feeds an external combustion engine, which powers the battery pack, the vehicle, and the other subsystems.
Part of the 18-month, $750,000 project includes modifying the 4DRCS software by adding additional code as needed. For the first milestone of the project, Finkelstein is focusing on demonstrating the system’s ability to distinguish between biomass and other elements; its ability to manipulate and “ingest” it; as well as to demonstrate the robotic arm and hand. The vehicle’s mobile capabilities are not part of the initial demonstration, he adds.
Finkelstein’s company is working with several other companies. Cyclone Power Technologies
of Pompano Beach, Fla. is providing the biomass engine. Elbit Systems of America
is contributing electronics. Finkelstein is also in discussions with other potential partners, who can contribute matching funds to the project with the approval of the Department of Defense. “To develop a working prototype will take several million dollars,” says Finkelstein.
In addition to its military applications, Finkelstein also envisions other applications, such as border patrol or agricultural work.
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