Autonomous vehicles that can only carry objects or shoot a weapon are so 2016.
Many companies are testing out unmanned ground vehicles with articulated arms that can grasp and move objects. Most of those systems rely on teleoperation to locate and grab, said Marshal Childers, a team leader with the Unmanned Systems Division of the Army Research Lab.
But RoMan, a small tracked unmanned vehicle built through collaboration with a number of industry and academic partners, does it on its own.
RoMan, short for "Robotic Manipulation," works through mounted cameras that can map out a region and then enable the vehicle to locate an object.
"From start to finish, basically once it's given the command to look for the object of interest, it will scan and, once it finds the object of interest, it will orient towards it," Childers said.
"It uses a course camera for initial detection, and then has a finer camera that will do 3D localization on the object," he added.
During a demonstration, RoMan's cameras came to life to locate a plastic gas can. It then moved toward the can, opened its arm's four fingers and picked it up. Finally, it tilted the can in a pouring motion, suggesting the robot could adapt to beverage service if it runs out of heavy-lift logistics tasks.
And the mapping capability means RoMan is not limited to picking up items within its immediate proximity, Childers said.
"If this gas can was confined in another booth, we could execute a command for it to go and find that gas can, and it would start to do a methodical search of the area until it found that gas can, and then it would go into the mode of, 'I see it, now I'm going to maneuver toward it and get in a position so I can grasp the handle on that gas can,' " he said.
Childers said the Army sees a use for a system with these capabilities as a partner for soldiers downrange and anywhere logistical tasks need to be accomplished -- even something simple like pouring coffee.
"Anytime there's a mundane or dangerous task, you could put a robot forward to do that thing," he said. "And the thing about autonomy is, it should free up the soldier; it should extend the reach of the soldier and enable them to do more things."
The robot could even work together with a soldier on the same task to move or set up equipment, Childers suggested.
And a larger, stronger version might eventually find use clearing debris or opening road access points, he said.
Moving forward, the collaborative team working on RoMan plans to make the robot faster, allowing it to move at the speed of the operational tempo around it, and improve its environmental perception to distinguish between objects and work in close proximity with humans.