Robo-Mule Gets Wheel, Leg Blend

Click this link, people. It's the Amazon page for David Hambling's Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-Tech World. David, a military tech writer for New Scientist and others, has his first story for us, below. And it's really good. Let's encourage him to write more, by sending him up the Amazon sales charts.mule_log_reduced.jpgGadgets are getting smaller. Materials are getting lighter. But the modern foot soldier is lugging a bigger load than ever. The U.S. Army is hoping to take some of this weight off with a new-fangeled beast of burden. The Future Force Warrior program's Robotic Mule will be able to go wherever the infantry go, carrying supplies and ammunition and giving them somewhere to plug in their rechargers.One approach to the Mule is to build a four-legged robot very much like the biological version -- or some sort of wheeled equivalent. But there is another way, and this is where Danny Hillis of Applied Minds comes in. Hillis is best known for developing the parallel processing that underlies most modern supercomputers, but has been active in many different fields. His idea is to develop something that is part wheel, part leg, combining the strengths of both. It's not a matter of reinventing the wheel so much as repackaging it."Nature doesn't generally use wheels," Hillis explains, "because although they are good for smooth surfaces, there are few smooth surfaces in nature. In fact we spent a great deal of effort building flat surfaces for wheels to roll on. It would be better to have a wheel which could go on any surface."Robot legs are complex and inefficient - typically they rely on dynamic stability, which means that a legged robot falls over when power turned off. Hillis built a large robot dinosaur for the Disney organisation, and says that the amazing thing is that it walks at all.mule_wired_quarterview.jpgThe new alternative would be as simple and cheap as a wheel but with the all-terrain capability of legs. Hillis is very cagey about the configuration - evidently there have been several different versions and the picture shows one prototype. The ultimate design may be completely different.Shi-Ping Hsu, Director at Northrop Grumman's Futures Laboratory, is collaborating on the project. He points out that a wheel/leg hybrid should be able to give a much lower centre of gravity than the usual large wheels used for rough terrain, making it much more suitable for military applications.If successful, the wheel/leg hybrid could have all sorts of uses for both powered and unpowered vehicles. The robotic mule and its relations will be the first beneficiaries, but it could give to a new generation of all-terrain vehicles. Eventually everything from electric wheelchairs to baby buggies may be able to negotiate all sorts of obstacles that are impossible today with the aid of the new hybrid.Hillis would not be drawn on when the wheel/leg project would be completed, but hinted that the design would be sufficiently simple that it could very readily be adapted and could spread quickly.Can you really improve on a design that's been around for thousands of years? "I'm not saying that we do have the solution," says Hillis, "but we might have a solution."-- David Hambling(Images courtesy of Applied Minds)

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