The Navy wants a fleet of half-humanoid, half-wheeled robots. Here’s why

Source: Digital Trends

Imagine a high tech robot centaur with an upper body that resembles a humanoid robot and a lower half that’s a tracked or wheeled robot. Picture it armed with a power tool in one hand and, say, a blow torch in the other; capable of manipulating heavy, 200-pound objects as if they were made of foam rubber. Sound like science fiction? Don’t tell that to the folks at Sarcos Defense, a subsidiary of the company Sarcos Robotics, who this week announced that they have been awarded a contract by the Office of Naval Research to develop just such a robot exoskeleton for potential use in the field.

Sarcos, whose work Digital Trends has covered in detail before, is no wide-eyed rookie when it comes to building exosuits for governmental purposes. Around the turn of the century, it was approached by DARPA to build the world’s first battery-powered, full-body industrial exoskeleton, capable of physically augmenting the capabilities of U.S. soldiers. Its new contract builds on work it has been carrying out in the commercial sector, with its Guardian XT and Guardian DX teleoperated dexterous robots designed for carrying out precision, and sometimes dangerous, tasks that allow the human operator to keep a safe distance.

“There are two key differences from the work we have been doing on our exoskeleton product,” Ben Wolff, chairman and CEO of Sarcos Robotics, told Digital Trends. “First, we are removing the legs and instead enabling the robot to be mobile by attaching to a variety of different powered bases. These bases might be telescoping elevated platforms like a scissor lift or a bucket truck, or they might be tracked for wheeled bases. Second, the work we are doing with the Navy evolves the exoskeleton from a robot that the operator wears to a robot that the operator controls from a distance.”

The new robot might look like a more robust, weaponized version of Short Circuit’s Johnny 5, but it’s actually more likely to be used for tasks like building and inspection. “Just as with private industry, teams in the military have to perform a lot of activities that relate to repair and maintenance, logistics and even construction,” Wolff continued. “The military will have some unique requirements, but the basic form factor and use cases are often the same. With the DX deployed in shipyards and depots, we believe we can increase both safety and efficiency, assisting the Navy to achieve its objectives for readiness.”