April 29, 2008 From fire fighting to termite eradication and exploring the Martian surface, the role of robots in performing tasks that are too dangerous for humans is already well established. Like many emerging technologies, the key driving force behind the development of these systems comes from military applications where robots are now regularly employed for tasks such as battlefield reconnaissance, communications and neutralizing the threat of explosive devices. In the latest news in this rapidly evolving field, BAE Systems has signed a $38 million agreement with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to spearhead development of next-generation intelligence-gathering military robots with a focus on versatile, miniature platforms suited to use urban environments and inaccessible terrain.

The Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) Collaborative Technology Alliance will examine several key areas for future robotic platforms including small-scale aeromechanics and ambulation, propulsion, sensing and communications, navigation and control, and systems architectures. Given the broad scale of the project, we can expect some surprising designs (like the "notional representation" of the Spiderbot pictured) to emerge.

“Robotic platforms extend the warfighter's senses and reach, providing operational capabilities that would otherwise be costly, impossible, or deadly to achieve,” said Dr. Joseph Mait, MAST cooperative agreement manager for the Army Research Laboratory. “The MAST alliance is a highly collaborative effort, with each partner from government, academia, and industry playing a significant role.”

MAST consists of four primary research areas, led by four principal alliance members: BAE Systems will lead Microsystems Integration, the University of Michigan will lead Microelectronics, the University of Maryland will lead Microsystem Mechanics, and the University of Pennsylvania will lead Processing for Autonomous Operation.

The alliance also has five general members participating in one or more of the research areas: the University of California at Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of New Mexico, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The Alliance has a planned duration of five years with an option to extend for an additional five years.