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September 28, 2010

Andrew Allen of the Bear Robot Program is Interviewed by Sander Olson

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Here is the Andrew Allen interview by Sander Olson. Mr. Allen is the Project Manager for the BEAR robot program, which is run by Vecna robotics. The BEAR is being designed as a multipurpose, semi-autonomous robot that can escort soldiers into battlefield situations and perform various tasks. When deployed, the BEAR will be able to enter and explore burning/unsecure buildings, climb stairs, pick up and carry wounded soldiers, and transport pallets. The BEAR could work for several hours, even at night. The BEAR has a hydraulic actuator system that makes it one of the strongest robots ever built, but is capable of lifting and holding delicate objects such as light bulbs.

Question: Vecna's flagship robotics program is the BEAR robot. How did this project originate?
Answer: The Bear project began about five years ago, and is funded by the Army. It comes out of research that our CTO, Daniel Theobald, began for small, high power robotics. The Army originally wanted a robot that could extract humans, so the acronym BEAR previously stood for Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot, but now we realize that this robot is far more versatile and useful for a broad range of missions in addition to rescue. So now we just call it “the Bear”.




Question: So the Army is providing all of your funding?
Answer: No, our primary funding source has been internal research and development money. Our external funding comes from multiple research divisions within the military. These include DARPA, the Army, the Navy, and Air Force. We also have a number of commercial sponsors that provide free products and services to help move this important project forward. Three of the most generous to date are Hydro-Force, Microchip and National Instruments and we are very appreciative of their support.

Question: Vecna decided to use hydraulics for the Bear robot. What made you chose that type of actuator, instead of pneumatic actuators or electric motors?
Answer: For sheer power-density, hydraulics are unbeatable. They can output an enormous amount of force at high speeds. Electric motors would either need to be huge or would be geared down and operate slowly. The work we have done for Bear brings energy-efficient hydraulic technology to a scale useful to mobile robotics. This makes the Bear technology ideal for logistics as well as search and rescue operations because it can lift a lot of weight, but also fit through doorways.



Question: The Bear incorporates dynamic balancing. Why is this feature so important?
Answer: Dynamic balancing is always managing the robot's center of gravity, which is important when it comes to the robot lifting heavy objects. This is not only useful for when the Bear is lifting heavy loads, but also means that when driving, the Bear will lean into the turns or automatically adjust for slopes. All of the balancing occurs automatically, and allows the robot to perform all manner of tasks. For instance, the Bear can carry a wounded soldier and put him onto a table.

Question: The Bear is a tracked robot. Can it climb stairs?
Answer: Previous versions of the Bear have successfully climbed stairs. The current hardware is capable of climbing stairs, but we have not had the funding to build the stair climbing software for this version, instead we have focused on demonstrating other advanced capabilities with this version such as loading and unloading pallets. By the time it is deployed it will definitely be able to climb stairs, move large rubble, and fit through doorways.

Question: Can Vecna produce these robots in any quantity required? Could you mass-produce tens of thousands of these robots, if necessary?
Answer: Certainly. We hope that Bear robots will be a huge military asset. If the Army makes this capability a priority, we should be able to provide large numbers in short order by leveraging our partners. As an example of that, on the medical side of our business, Vecna is the market leader for patient check-in kiosks and we mass produce that hardware, so we have lots of experience on the manufacturing side.

Question: Could the Bear be armored?
Answer: The laboratory prototype, which has starred in the YouTube videos, has many hydraulic lines outside, as well as an external battery pack. This is only a proof-of-concept, and we will be making changes to make the lines and power sources better protected. If the Army required a fully armored robot we are able to accommodate that. Since the robot is extremely strong, it would be better able to accommodate the weight of armor than competing solutions.

Question: How does the propulsion system work?
Answer: The track system can be either electrically or hydraulically actuated. Power is provided through a central battery pack, which is silent. The current battery can provide power for up to an hour before swapping packs, but the next version should about double that. When you add the optional on-board generator, it can run for hours or days depending on the type of work it is doing.



Question: How does the Bear see?
Answer: The Bear is being designed with 360 degree awareness. The current version has two cameras - one is a thermal imager, and the other is a night vision camera. The sensor payload on Bear will be able to map its terrain and avoid obstacles. The Bear can operate at night. The sensor payload can be adapted to whichever sensors are required for the mission.

Question: How autonomously can this robot operate?
Answer: The Bear can carry out simple, high-level commands, such as "go to this GPS location" or, “pick up that box”. If it cannot perform the command, it has the option to ask the human for help. We call this Semi-Autonomy, and it's an excellent solution for robots, especially those with many joints. Bears will not require someone constantly controlling it. Once given the command the robot will usually complete the order without further oversight.

Question: Are there plans for a next-generation Bear?
Answer: Yes, the current generation model is 7.2. The next-generation model, version 8.0, will be coming online in 2012. It will feature a number of improvements, including a tightly integrated hydraulic power system, a stronger, more powerful mobility base, and it will be considerably lighter. It will have an enhanced sensor payload, and it will be able to accomplish a number of tasks autonomously.

Question: What implement does Bear use to grasp objects?
Answer: The Bear uses hands with three fingers, and six degrees of motion. These three fingers allows the robot to pick up chairs, tree branches, i-beams, poles, pallets or boxes. Each finger can exert 100 pounds of force, which is an advantage of a hydraulic solution over an electromechanical system. These fingers are strong, but are also sophisticated and sensitive enough to pick up an egg without breaking it.

Question: It seems that Bear could be used as a combat robot.
Answer: The Bear is a multi-purpose tool. It can be used for many stand-off operations where military personnel would otherwise be in harm's way. Also, it can act as a “force multiplier”, allowing one person to do the work of many people. We are currently focused on missions such as pallet loading and unloading, reconnaissance, or bomb disposal. Our aim is to provide the Military with a robotic platform that can be used for a variety of tasks to help save lives and prevent injury.

Question: Is Vecna doing any research into AI for robots?
Answer: Absolutely. Vecna employs some of the worlds leading AI researchers. We are continuing to make AI research a priority with the ultimate goal of creating robots that are capable of increased autonomy.

Question: What single hardware/software advances would most expedite robotics development?
Answer: On the hardware side, the industry would like to see a power source that is quiet, efficient, has a small footprint, and has a high power density. The cellphone and electric car markets have definitely advanced battery technology, and that has benefited the robotics industry. Still, the power sources we currently have available are far from ideal.

On the software side, a common AI architecture would be a boon to the industry, There is a large amount of research currently dedicated to this specific question. Vecna's machine vision team has made some exciting breakthroughs in ways to process visual information which is crucial to increased autonomy. I am encouraged by the progress being made, and we are beginning to see how robots can be useful in everyday life. We are all observers of the robotics revolution, and I am excited to see how robotics can make military operations safer, and I am also very excited to see to see these robotic technologies change our everyday lives for the better.

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