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Bots for the Middle East?

August 13, 2013

Turns out that the creation of the robot bug we introduced you to last week—the one ready to be mass-produced on 3D printers—sprang from research funded by the Israeli army, and is considered ideal for urban reconnaissance missions.

The collapsible cyber-critter nicknamed STAR (Sprawl Tuned Autonomous Robot) has particular advantages over the other bio-inspired robots created at Berkeley’s Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, which also does research for the U.S. military. The robot can be programmed with a command sequence and function without a joystick, making it virtually autonomous. And it’s sneaky. It can hide behind furniture and crawl under doors, allowing it to “see” without being seen.

Andrew Pullin, the graduate student who programmed STAR’s electronics, tells us that those features make it a real asset for what’s known in urban warfare circles as “The Last Hundred Yards.” That’s the precarious interface between mutually hostile forces that is apt to consist of warrens of small rooms, tight corridors and stairwells.

“They’re the kinds of places you tend to find in Mideast urban theaters,” Pullin says.

Researchers have developed other robots for similar situations. “Trashcan robots”—basically big metal blocks on wheels or treads—often are employed against IEDs. And quad-rotors—flying drones of small to middling size capable of bravura maneuvers—are also used for observation.

As we noted, STAR can scramble along flat or rugged surfaces with equal facility, squeeze through rat holes and scale obstacles. Those qualities make it valuable for search-and-rescue operations, such as a mine cave-in or building collapse. Still, Pullin said, the driving force behind the project is military in nature.

“Plus, we can use it in conjunction with other robots,” says Pullin. “For example, a quad-rotor could lift a STAR and fly through a window, drop off the STAR and fly back out of the building, and the STAR completes its mission.”

But could STAR be tasked for active combat: overt offense instead of recon? In other words, could it serve as a substitute for an armed human being?

The robot wasn’t designed for such missions, Pullin says, “but engineers being engineers, we’ve kicked the idea around some. It could probably deliver a five gram payload of C-4 (a high explosive), so you wonder what kind of results you could get with that.”

One of STAR’s selling points is simply that it’s cheap. As we reported earlier, all of the robot’s components save the battery and control board are plastic, and churned out on 3-D printers. For the amount of money needed to build one “trashcan” crawler, a swarm of STARS could be fabricated.

Pullin, of couse, is bullish on STAR—but he also acknowledges some qualms about possible mission creep. “Certainly,” he says, “it’s not the kind of thing you’d ever want to see deployed domestically.”

—Glen Martin

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