Army Researchers Developing Self-righting for Robots


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When a Soldier trips over a rock, he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and presses on. Bomb-defusing robots, for the moment, are not so good at recovering themselves in the same way.

Chad Kessens, a robot manipulation research engineer with the Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, part of the Research, Development and Engineering Command, on Aberdeen Proving Ground, or APG, Maryland, is working to make it so the autonomous vehicles used by Soldiers to investigate the inside of a room, or to defuse an improvised explosive device, can turn themselves back over, right side up, if they ever get flipped the wrong way.

At his lab at APG, Kessens had an improvised explosive device-, or IED, defusing robot sitting atop a piece of plywood that was propped up slightly on one edge to create an incline. He flipped the robot over on its back. A nearby researcher initiated a sequence of instructions for the robot, and within seconds, the machine had flipped itself upright.

His research, he said, will mean less time manipulating the sometimes complex controls of an autonomous vehicle to make it right itself, and fewer situations where a Soldier has to make the tough decision to either leave a robot behind or go into what may be a dangerous area to retrieve it.

Kessens said he embarked on his work after having attended the Army's Route Reconnaissance and Clearance Course.

"Soldiers take it to learn to use robots for finding improvised explosive devices by the roadside in theater," he said. "Through my interactions with the Soldiers and the trainers, who had been in theater using these robots, I learned that these robots turn over surprisingly often. And when they do, it can be difficult for the Soldier to return it to its upright state and continue the mission."

One Soldier, he said, relayed to him a story about exactly the kind of scenario that would demand a robot perform on its own what now requires the intervention of an operator. An autonomous robot had flipped over, and the Soldier found himself spending an inordinate amount of time manipulating the controls trying to recover it.

"After 20 minutes of trying, he couldn't do it," Kessens said. "He valued his robot so much that he got out of the safety of the vehicle and went over and saved the robot. And that is exactly the kind of situation that we don't want to put the Soldier in."

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