As part of an ongoing Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project, Sandia National Laboratories has developed a small, shoebox-sized, GPS guided, unmanned ground vehicle that can jump over and onto obstacles more than 6 meters high. With an estimated range of 2 kilometers, the robot can drive using motor-driven wheels or it can hop using a rotatable combustion-driven piston actuator.
In general, small robots or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are severely limited by their ability to negotiate obstacles. This demonstrated hopping capability allows small UGVs to overcome up to 30 obstacles that are 40-60 times their own size. In addition, hopping mobility has been shown to be 5 times more efficient than hovering for obstacles at heights less than or equal to 10 meters, which allows longer station-keeping time for the same amount of fuel.
The urban battlefield is characterized by isolated small squads often converging on a common target; close combat fights with high expenditure of resources; rapidly changing conditions quickly redefining a squad’s responsibilities; and, last but not least, a truly 3-dimensional battlefield. This program developed a semi-autonomous wheeled robotic platform that adapts to the urban environment in real-time and provides precision payload deployment to any point of the urban jungle while remaining lightweight and small.
To make this capability operational, we had to overcome several technical challenges. These challenges include appropriate shock management during landing (limits hopper mass), controlling hop height, launching from varying terrain (concrete, asphalt, sand, vegetation), and controlling the landings to limit tumbling. Also, as is true for all autonomous robotic systems, self-localization and mapping in a 3-D dynamic environment had to be addressed.
The Urban Hopper robot is expected to provide the squad/platoon level infantry of a special operations unit with a revolutionary capability. The hopping robots will provide enhanced situational awareness for shaping the outcome of the immediate local combat situation. Their compact, light-weight design makes them man-packable, and their semi-autonomous capability greatly reduces the work-load burden of the operator. The overall net effect should be a measurable reduction in casualties in the urban combat environment with low collateral damage. In addition, the Urban Hopper capabilities have implications for use in other communities such as local law enforcement, homeland security, and search and rescue applications in challenging terrain and even aiding in planetary exploration.