The next critter in the Defense Department's menagerie of robotic prototype animals is designed to jump and climb and conduct scouting and reconnaissance missions for ground units.
The Naval Research Lab's Meso-scale Robotic Locomotion Initiative, or MeRLIn, is building a 10-20 pound hydraulic-powered robot that aims to improve on the design of the hulking Legged Squad Support system, or robotic mule, that was tested by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab as a possible logistics aid. That system ran on a gas-powered engine and was designed to carry up to 400 pounds of gear for troops.
"[The Marines'] assessment was that it was big and loud," MeRLIn program manager Mike Osborn said of the LS3. "So we hope to address both of those problems."
The prototype the Naval Research Lab is building uses hydraulic miniaturization technology to build the four-legged robot animal. A partially completed version was on display in June at the Pentagon during an Office of Naval Research technology exposition. The finished prototype, to be completed next year, will be the size of a small cat or dog, but Osborn told Military.com the lab's goal was to go even smaller.
"There are technologies that support making a backpackable-sized robot," he said.
The Marine Corps experimented with smaller hydraulic robot technology with "Spot," a 160-pound prototype designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. But the Marines have yet to experiment with a robotic quadruped small enough to be carried as part of a combat load.
Osborn envisions a rifle squad will be able to send the robotic squirrel out ahead to scout terrain and bring back information to the unit. He also believes they would be useful as tools for explosive ordnance disposal -- a field that has long employed robotics technologies to help approach and dismantle explosives without endangering human lives.
"Say this goes out with the squad, they pull this out of their backpack… it moves out in front of the squad to walk point, send information back, say 'OK, it's safe to bring the squad forward' or 'Hey, there's something up here that you should go find out about,'" Osborn said.
The concept of using a four-legged robot rather than a wheeled vehicle is less about whimsy than it is about finding ways to operate in the most rugged environments.
"Legs go where wheels can't," Osborn said. "Wheels can only go up to half a wheel height over an obstacle. This will be able to pick and place its feet, walk across broken terrain, crouch, go in small passageways, and this can also run and jump."
Admittedly, a robot that can do that is several generations away, Osborn said.
For now, Osborn and lab staff are working to complete the robotic squirrel prototype and to develop additional uses for it, as well.
"We're looking for somebody as the end user to say. ‘hey I want something like this to do this specific thing.' And with that, we can justify taking this to the prototyping and demonstration level. We'll see where this goes," Osborn said.