The military potential of robotics has long been one of the primary driving forces in the funding of research and development in the field. Aerial UAVs transformed armed conflict so dramatically that a new wave of robotic military capabilities are being readied for the battlefield in the hope of providing a similar competitive edge. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) recently began showing a battery-powered robotic beast of burden which can carry up to 200 kilograms, run three days without a recharge, and follow and respond to the voice commands of its master. Though designed for use on the battlefield, REX has myriad commercial applications in agriculture, manufacturing, and beyond.
IAI first showed the REX last month at the 2009 Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition.
REX is a relatively small robotic platform designed to accompany ground forces on operations. It can carry around 200 kilograms, and is designed to assist groups of three to ten ground soldiers on operational and logistical missions for up to 72 hours without refueling – it is a robotic "beast of burden" for the modern soldier.
REX follows the lead soldier from a given distance, utilizing technology developed and patented by IAI. Using simple familiar commands, such as "stop", "fetch", and "heel", the lead soldier controls the robot without being distracted from the mission at hand. Controlling the robot in this way allows for intuitive interaction and rapid integration in the field.
Robots replacing and augmenting humans
The US military, the world’s largest purchaser of non-industrial robotic systems, plans for much more extensive use of robots in coming decades and has repeatedly said that its strategy is to use robots to perform tasks which will take soldiers out of harm’s way, and hence the creation of functional autonomous vehicles was the the first logical step. DARPA’s Grand Challenge I and II and the Urban Challenge kickstarted autonomous vehicle development with that specific purpose in mind, and military money has dominated robotic R&D funding in most other respects as well.
The potential to give the footsoldier significant robotic help has been a focus of much work in recent years with mechanical exoskeletons and mule-type machinery the most interesting areas.
The main idea is that with computers and other comms, body armor, machine guns, mortars, UAVs and other machinery continually adding to the load carried by foot soldiers, a powered exoskeleton or semi-autonomous pack mule would enable the soldier to be better equipped when it counts most.
Exoskeletons obviously offer a range of other capabilities beyond simply carrying things and will one day augment both the survivability and lethality of the combatant.
The vision is that one day, an exoskeleton will increase the soldier’s speed, stamina, range, strength, and the ability to wear and carry body armor which protects against projectiles, blast, fire, heat, steam, radiation, gas, chemical and biological agents. With additional strength, a soldier might be able to lift heavy munitions, clear debris and repair heavy machinery unaided.
Exoskeletons for soldiers promise enough strength to carry much heaver packs over difficult terrain – enough extra weight to include effective body armor, advanced communications equipment, remotely deployable aerial robots and, of course, much more firepower.
BigDog and the versatility of the quadruped
While powered exoskeleton development is currently ongoing in several prominent defence-related establishments such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin most of the emphasis on robotic mule development has been focused on supporting Boston Dynamics in developing a four-legged mule capable of operating in rugged terrain inaccessible to vehicles.
According to Boston Dynamics, less than half the Earth's landmass is accessible to existing wheeled and tracked vehicles and people and animals can go almost anywhere using legs. Hence its Big Dog project which ultimately has the goal of creating a robot that can go anywhere people and animals can go.
BigDog is a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads. Currently, he’s powered by an engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system – so loud that it isn’t stealthy yet, but one suspects that the chainsaw-like sound is only temporary.
BigDog has four legs that are articulated like an animal’s, with compliant elements to absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule; about 3 feet long, 2.5 feet tall and weighs 240lbs.
BigDog's on-board computer controls locomotion, servos the legs and handles a variety of sensors. BigDog’s control system keeps it balanced, navigates, and regulates its energetics as conditions vary. Sensors for locomotion include joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load, a gyroscope, LIDAR and a stereo vision system.
Other sensors focus on the internal state of BigDog, monitoring the hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine functions, battery charge and others.
In separate tests BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, climbs a muddy hiking trail, walks in snow and water, and carries a 340 lb load. BigDog set a world's record for legged vehicles by traveling 12.8 miles without stopping or refueling.
Clearly, one day, BigDog will become a battlefield reality, and it’s interesting to see similar work being done for perhaps slightly different purposes in Korea where the Pohang Institute of Intelligent Robotics is already into the second iteration of the development of an electric four-legged robotic platform named the pQ2. This motor-driven quadruped is a bit smaller than BigDog at 360mm width and 670mm high by 650mm long and weighs in at 45 kilograms, so it’s not likely to be much help to a soldier in its current form but the capabilities of the quadruped are developing quickly thanks to ever evolving software.
IAI's robotic vision
So whilst four-legged robots are probably some way away, the IAI REX has massive potential and the company estimates that demand for such a product from the international market could amount to tens of thousands of orders, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and be used in a wide variety of military and civil applications.
The development of the system is a result of IAI's awareness of the urgent operational need for such a device. It integrates various already existent robotic capabilities, ensuring a low target price, a short development period, and low-risk development.
Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) is the largest aerospace and defense industry in Israel as well as the country's largest industrial exporter and a globally recognized leader in the defense and commercial markets. IAI provides unique system-of-systems solutions for a broad spectrum of needs in space, air, land, sea, and homeland defense, including: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), radars, mission aircraft, AEW, EW, ELINT/ESM, SIGINT, and COMINT/COMJAM, aerial refueling, Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missiles (ATBM), missiles, smart weapons, satellites and launchers, navigation, upgrading of military aircraft and helicopters, maintenance and conversion of commercial aircraft, and many other core technologies, products, and services.
REX was developed in the business and technological innovation department of IAI. This is a diverse department, composed of a team of young, dynamic entrepreneurs responsible for developing products in the newest fields of interest.
The team utilizes creative thinking and academic and industry-based joint projects, both in Israel and worldwide, to lead IAI in the achievement of many important milestones. One such joint project resulted in the Guardium, a robotic patrol vehicle produced by the company GNIUS.
Another example of this entrepreneurial spirit being fostered within to create new products is the Taxibot, a semi-robotic aircraft towing system capable of towing aircraft under the pilot’s control.
Currently, taxiing at airports using an aircrafts' main engines and results in a huge consumption of fuel (forecasted to cost around USD$7bn globally by 2012), a large emission of CO2 (approx. 18m tonnes per year), and a significant source of FOD (Foreign Object Debris) damage (costing around USD$350m per year).
The Taxibot is expected to completely remove the need to turn on the aircraft's main engines during taxi, although the aircraft's auxiliary power unit (APU) would need to be activated in order to supply power to cockpit and cabin systems.
IAI signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the 2009 Paris Air Show to jointly develop Taxibot with Airbus, the largest aircraft company in Europe.
Subject to a satisfactory outcome of the assessments during 2009 and subsequent operational demonstrations, preparation of a potential joint-venture (or other form of cooperation) could be created to develop a business which would aim to produce and sell Taxibot tractors to airports. This company would be a venture with three main shareholders: IAI, Airbus, and a tractor manufacturer.
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