NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

The day when tactical mobile robots will serve as military "point men," surveying enemy terrain during combat operations, is one step closer to reality with the selection of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to lead a consortium to create a miniature tactical mobile robot for urban operations.

JPL was selected from among 50 finalists to receive the 18- month contract.

Drawing on robotics technologies developed for the space program, the "backpackable" microrover will break new ground in small robot size (under 40 centimeters or 16 inches in length), light weight, maneuverability and real-time perception for navigation and reconnaissance.

"We are pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to U.S. defense technologies and to exploit valuable synergy between space and military robotic applications in unstructured terrain," said Charles Weisbin, manager of the Robotics and Mars Exploration Technology unit in JPL's Technology and Applications Programs Directorate. "The vehicle developed by this effort will be the vanguard of a new generation of miniature, mobile, intelligent sensor systems."

The microrover will be small enough to be easily carried and deployed by a single soldier, yet rugged enough to survive impacts when tossed over fences, window sills and other barriers. It will be able to climb stairs and other obstacles quickly, and be capable of conducting detailed surveying and mapping of indoor and outdoor environments, and detection and localization of hostile forces.

"We have spent a lot of time and energy analyzing employment concepts for portable robotic platforms over the last few years and are convinced of their revolutionary impact on dismounted warfare," said Lieutenant Colonel John Blitch, former chief of unmanned systems at U.S. Special Operations Command and current program manager for DARPA's Tactical Mobile Robotics Program.

In support of building-clearance operations, a tactical mobile robot could be tossed in a doorway, pointed down a hall and commanded to scurry along the wall or climb multiple flights of stairs until side-looking laser sensors detected a doorway or branching hallway. It could detect hostile entities, deactivate booby traps, deliver payloads or simply stop and listen with its acoustic/vibration system before continuing reconnaissance of the new area.

Outdoors, the robot could drive and hide along the curb of a street to look around the next intersection. It could drive in a ditch, pausing occasionally to listen, or be deployed to use the video motion detection capability, acting as a wing-man to cover the soldier's flank.

Consortium members and their contributing areas of expertise include IS Robotics, Somerville, MA (robotic platforms); Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh (perception); the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN (map-making), and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (operator interface).

Building on designs created during a six-month first-phase contract completed last year, the consortium is now contributing to DARPA's Tactile Mobile Robotics Program during a second phase by developing the miniature rover prototype. Completion of this second-phase project is scheduled for the end of 1999.

More information on JPL's robotics activities is available on the Internet at .

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