The U.S. Army is currently testing a robot designed to locate, lift and carry wounded soldiers out of harm’s way without risking additional lives. With feedback from its onboard sensors and cameras, the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) can be remotely controlled through the use of a special M-4 rifle grip controller or by hand gestures using an AnthroTronix iGlove motion glove. This equipment would allow a soldier to direct BEAR to a wounded soldier and transport them to safety where they can be assessed by a combat medic.
Built by Vecna Robotics, BEAR maneuvers via two independent sets of tracked “legs” and is able to stand up and dynamically balance on the balls of its ankles, knees or hips while carrying a load. At full height BEAR stands 1.8 m (6 ft) tall, allowing it to look over walls or to lift its cargo onto a raised surface. To ensure it can handle a fully equipped soldier, BEAR’s hydraulic arms are capable of carrying up to 500 pounds (227 kg), while its hands and fingers allow it to carry out fine motor tasks. It also has a “teddy bear” face that is designed to be reassuring.
BEAR has been undergoing tests over the past year in simulations and live exercises by soldiers at the U.S. Army Infantry Center Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, Georgia. These tests are designed to provide BEAR’s developers with feedback on the real-world operational capabilities and requirements for the robot.
Anthronix, the makers of the iGlove, which is available commercially as the AcceleGlove, plans to develop a new glove for controlling the robot that will include more accelerometers and a digital compass to allow for greater control using only hand gestures – to instruct the robot to disable an improvised explosive device or travel exactly 500 meters east for example.
The alternative method of remote control, a "Mounted Force Controller" which is mounted on the grip of an M-4 rifle, allows a user to control BEAR without having to put down their weapon.
Currently all BEAR’s actions are controlled by a human user but the developers are working to give BEAR more complicated semi-autonomous behaviors that will allow it to understand and carry out increasingly complicated commands.
Vecna Robotics says BEAR could also be used for search and rescue, handling hazardous materials, surveillance and reconnaissance, mine inspection, lifting hospital patients, or even warehouse automation. However, the battlefield is where we’re probably most likely to first see BEAR.
“If robots could be used in the face of threats such as urban combat, booby-trapped IEDs, and chemical and biological weapons, it could save medics' and fellow soldiers' lives," says Gary Gilbert of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), which helped fund BEAR’s development.