July 3, 2008
Robo Sally Set for Battle: Next-Generation Bomb Hunter Extends from Arm Project
Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robots have saved countless lives in Iraq. In 25,000 EOD missions, there have been 30 fatalities. The death count would have been higher if it weren't for the robots, according to Army Col. K. Reinhard, who commands the Army, Navy and Air Force explosives disposal teams in Iraq.
But "improvements can be made and should be made," he said earlier this spring at the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) Ground Robotics Exposition in San Antonio, adding that robots should be able to see, touch and even hear when they are downrange acting as surrogates for technicians.
A small group of engineers from the Biomedicine Business Area is already heading in that direction with the creation of the Dexterous Robotics Platform. The system, affectionately known as Sally, is a fabricated human torso "armed" with the first two prototypes from the Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, an APL-led effort to create a prosthetic arm that looks, feels and operates like a human limb.
The robot is mounted on a twowheeled platform that can be steered by a video-game type controller, a joystick, or a foot-controlled pressure sensor worn in the operator's shoes. It is topped off with a tracking and visualization system — two networked cameras spaced at the same separation and gaze angle as human eyes — that streams images to two eyepiece screens mounted in a visor-like cap. An operator not only sees what Sally sees, but when he moves his head, Sally's follows.
Sally was the "belle of the ball" at the NDIA conference, says M. Kozlowski, a National Security Technology Department engineer working on the effort. "She is unlike any of the traditional EOD platforms. Most fielded EOD robots are racked vehicles with very low dexterity and a claw that can move in three, maybe five ways. Sally has stereo vision. The operator can see what she sees in 3-D. She has motion-tracking features that allow the neck to pan with the operator's movement. And her limbs can fully mimic the operator's motion."
EOD personnel should be able to learn the system quickly, Kozlowski adds, "since we already innately know how to control our native limbs. The system will serve as a significant milestone in anthropomorphic mobile robotics and as a test bed for operator training and development."
APL Leads the Way
APL already has the expertise to support this role, in advanced robotics research, human system integration capabilities, virtual integration environments and platform autonomy. "
Much of Sally has been developed under IRAD (Independent Research and Development) funding specific to Biomedicine," Kozlowski says. "But as the technology advances, we will begin using it as a test bed for the control architecture and other advanced robotics tasks, and it will eventually be a cross-enterprise Lab resource."