Sandia LabNews

Sandia hopping robots to bolster troop capabilities


Sandia’s hopping robots may soon be in combat.

Boston Dynamics, developer of advanced dynamic robots such as BigDog and PETMAN, has been awarded a contract by Sandia to develop the next generation of the Precision Urban Hopper.

When fully operational, the four-wheeled robots with one mighty leg will navigate autonomously using their wheels and will jump onto or over obstacles when they meet them. The hopper will be able to jump more than 25 feet into the air, says Jon Salton (6473), program manager.

“The Precision Urban Hopper is part of a broad effort to bolster the capabilities of troops and special forces engaged in urban combat, giving them new ways to operate unfettered in the urban canyon,” says Jon.

The development program, funded by DARPA, DoD’s advanced technology organization, has a nine-month design phase followed by a nine-month build phase, with testing and delivery in late 2010.

As part of the ongoing DARPA project, Sandia developed the shoebox-sized, GPS- guided, unmanned ground robots.

Their demonstrated hopping capability allows the small unmanned ground vehicles to overcome up to 30 obstacles that are 40-60 times their own size. Hopping mobility has been shown to be five times more efficient than hovering for obstacles at heights under 10 meters, which allows longer station-keeping time for the same amount of fuel.

The wheeled robotic platform 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. Researchers addressed several technical challenges, including appropriate management of shock forces during landing; controlling hop height from varying terrain including concrete, asphalt, sand, and vegetation; and controlling landings to limit tumbling.

An overall goal of the robots is to decrease the number of causalities in combat. To that end, the hopping robots will provide enhanced situational awareness for shaping the outcome of the immediate local combat situation, says Jon. Their compact, lightweight design makes them portable, and their semiautonomous capability greatly reduces the workload burden of the operator.

In addition to providing military assistance, the hopping capabilities of the robots could be used in law enforcement, homeland security, search and rescue applications in challenging terrain, and in planetary exploration, says Jon.

“We are delighted to win this project and get a chance to work with Sandia on such a novel and potentially useful robot,” says Marc Raibert, president and founder of Boston Dynamics. “The program gives us a chance to apply our special brand of advanced controls and stabilization to a system that can help our warfighters in the near future.”

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