Monster Machines: The Best Bomb Disposal Bot Is Also The Most Human

Of the 25,000 Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) missions conducted by the US military in Iraq, only 30 have resulted in fatalities according to Army Col. K. Reinhard, commander of the joint EOD teams operating in the theatre. That’s still 30 too many. And that’s why DARPA’s developed the most advanced EOD surrogate ever, a veritable Jaeger of bomb disposal: the Bimanual Dexterous Robotic Platform (BDRP).

EOD operations are vital not only to soldiers in the field but also to civilians in the same fields after military operations have ceased. But disabling explosives, whether they’re the improvised variety prefered by insurgents or landmines formerly used by nation states, is an exceedingly dangerous occupation. And while steady advances in robotic EOD platform technologies since the 1970s have transformed these systems into functional surrogates for their human operators, that functionality has always been a bit crude. Tank treads, monoscopic EO vision, and 5-axis gripper claws are not exactly close corollaries to the human experience. And that’s where the BDRP, better known as Sally, comes in.

See, instead of trying to shoehorn the functionality of a human hand into a gripper claw, a researcher team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, led by designer, Michael McLoughlin, simply used a robotic arm designed for people. That is, the team attached a pair of DARPA-designed Modular Prosthetic Limbs onto a 2-wheeling robotic torso. The prototype appendages are being made “to create a neurally controlled artificial limb that will restore near-natural motor and sensory capability to upper-extremity amputee patients,” as part of the APL’s Revolutionising Prosthetics Program.

Funded by the Department of defence, Sally boasts 42 individual degrees of motion (17 per arm, three in the torso, three in the neck, and another pair in wheeled base). What’s more, each arm can curl 50 pounds and pinch with 20 pounds of force. Even more impressive is the control method. While the mobile platform Sally’s torso rest upon is controlled by either a normal X-Box-style joystick or a pressure sensitive pad in the operator’s shoe, manipulating her arms and eyes requires a more direct approach. The remote operator utilizes telepresence gloves to control Sally’s arms and hands simply by moving his own and sees what the robot sees — in stereoscopic vision — in a motion tracking headset. As his gaze pans and tilts, so too does Sally’s.

“She is unlike any of the traditional EOD platforms,” said M. Kozlowski, a National Security Technology Department engineer. “Most fielded EOD robots are racked vehicles with very low dexterity and a claw that can move in three, maybe five ways. Sally has stereo vision. The operator can see what she sees in 3D. She has motion-tracking features that allow the neck to pan with the operator’s movement. And her limbs can fully mimic the operator’s motion.”

This is a huge leap forward in both EOD technology and robotics in general. This could well be the basis of real life Gundams. But until we do start building giant robot overlords, we’ll just use Sally and her progeny for more urbane roles like IED disposal, vehicle searches, and manning checkpoints. [CBS News, Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins University, Live Science]