For 10 sweltering days in mid-June, a small army of crawling, rolling, hopping and hovering robots invaded Ft. Benning, Georgia, a sprawling training post near the Alabama border. The occasion: the U.S. Army’s Robotics Rodeo, a competitive evaluation of the latest ground-combat robots.
The Robeo, as it’s affectionately known, is the third since 2009. The 2012 Robeo was the first to include competitions — “vignettes,” the organizers called them — in which robots went head-to-head on a mock battlefield. Alongide the vignettes, robot developers showed off their latest software and hardware in a shopping mall-style exhibit hall, part of the event co-hosted by the Army’s Manuever Battlelab; the Detroit-based Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center; and the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization.
Forty-four companies and five universities brought 74 technologies to the Robeo. These included upgraded versions of today’s ground ‘bots plus brand-new models preparing for their first deployments and even a few experimental ‘bots. Robot developers were encouraged to take chances with unproven designs.
The point was to be as open-minded as possible, according to Ed Davis from the Maneuver Battlelab, who channeled his inner Donald Rumsfeld. “Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know until we see it in action,” he said.
In all, TARDEC oversaw three complex vignettes — one each for three different robots respectively specializing in autonomous supply missions, automatic foxhole-digging and reconnaissance in which the ‘bots raced the clock rather than each other.
Compared to TARDEC’s elaborate, single-player scenarios, JIEDDO’s vignettes were free-for-alls. Eighteen different robots faced off in four vignettes scripted by the bomb-defeating organization. The JIEDDO events focused on different aspects of the counter-IED mission, including patrol endurance, reconnaissance, and bomb detection and disruption.
The final results of 10 days of competition are still being tallied. “In general we’re very pleased with what we saw,” TARDEC’s Jim Parker said. What follows is a sampling of the dozens of robotic technologies that squared off at the 2012 Robotics Rodeo.
The Giant, Adorable Robot Cockroach
Boston Dynamics, an MIT spinoff, is famous for modeling robots after animals. The company’s mule-like Big Dog and robotic cheetah have been instant headline hits. Less famous are the two ‘bots Boston Dynamics brought to the 2012 Robeo, including the six-legged Rex scout. Designed to mimic the all-terrain mobility of a cockroach, Rex does one better than its insect inspiration. In addition to climbing stairs and rubble and steep inclines, Rex is absolutely adorable. Boston Dynamics vice president Roberty Playter told Danger Room the roach-‘bot is already in Afghanistan for Army combat trials.