US Navy developing ‘robot squirrel’ as scout
Fri 8 Jul 2016
The latest in a series of robotic prototype animals to be created by the US Naval Research Lab is designed to conduct scouting and reconnaissance missions for ground troops. The 10-20 pound hydraulic ‘squirrel robot’ will be able to jump and climb, to scout terrain and bring information back to its unit.
Mike Osborn, program manager for the Naval Research Lab’s Meso-scale Robotic Locomotion Initiative (MeRLIn), said that the robot could also be useful for explosive ordinance disposal. Robotics have long been an accepted solution for approaching and dismantling explosive devices without endangering human lives, but in the field, a robotic squirrel would have additional advantages.
A four-legged robot has a distinct advantage over its wheeled counterpart. “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.”
While the reconnaissance functions of the robot squirrel mirror those of unmanned aircrafts, or drones, which are already being used to provide information in combat, the squirrel will have the advantage of being more difficult to spot. A robot on the ground might be able to circumvent scanners which are focused on air surveillance.
The robot squirrel initiative aims to improve on the robotic mule, or Legged Squad Support System (LS3), that was field tested by the Marines in 2015 as a potential logistics aid. The large, gas-powered robot mule could carry up to 400 pounds of equipment for a Marine troop, but was scrapped last December due to noise concerns. As Osborn said, “Their assessment was that [the LS3] was big and loud … we hope to address both of those problems.” The Marine Corps also experimented with a smaller, 160-lb. hydraulic robot dog affectionately referred to as Spot which was eventually discarded as well. The squirrel robot, using miniaturized hydraulic systems, would be easily transported by ground troops in a backpack and deployed for reconnaissance in the field, rather than traveling alongside troops like the robot mule, or Spot.
A partially completed prototype of the robot squirrel was displayed last month during a Naval Research technology expo at the Pentagon. The scientists at MeRLIn are focused on completing the prototype robot squirrel, and are creating new functionalities for it, to increase its usefulness and practical applications in the field.