Mar. 15, 2001 If you want to build something that will behave well, perform tasks autonomously, and fit flawlessly in its environment, chances are you'll find a good example somewhere in nature.
Take the scorpion, for instance. Here you have an invertebrate creature that withstands searing heat, doesn't eat much, moves omni-directionally, climbs with ease and alacrity over hills and rocks and prickly things, and defends itself in no uncertain terms. Building a scorpion based on biologically derived design principles is the basis of a new discipline called biomimetics - mimicking nature. If you could give it marching orders, well... it just might make the perfect ground soldier. "And the fact that it could look like a scorpion," says Office of Naval Research Program Manager, Dr. Joel Davis, "would give it what every soldier in the desert wants... stealth."
But can it be done? The answer, say scientists funded by ONR, is yes. At Northeastern University in Boston, they've done it. And while it still doesn't exactly look like a scorpion, it's beginning to act more and more like one. By integrating a low level behavior repertoire - in other words they haven't asked it to do too much yet - with control ideas based on neurobiological studies on invertebrates, they can get it to perform some simple autonomous tasks. In summer 2002, the Scorpion will be taken to the Mojave desert where it will make its way 25 miles into that desert, and then find its way back to its exact deployment location, a roundtrip journey of 50 miles made completely on its own. It will be solar-powered in its final form.
And so, the Office of Naval Research adds the Scorpion to a robotic menagerie that now includes Robo-Lobster, Robo-Lamprey, Robo-Tuna, and Robo-Fly, among others. Under the sea, on the sea, and in the air, robots packed with sensors and computing power able to go where man can't or shouldn't. There is great potential for Navy operations here. Clandestine reconnaissance and surveillance is one. Mine detection is another. Fire control, stress detection, reactor inspections, search and rescue... the possibilities are nearly endless.
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