DARPA sets aside $7 million for 'Avatar' robot pals in battle

Feb 18, 2012 by Nancy Owano report

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced this week that it will be setting aside $7 million out of its $2 billion budget to work on a next-step robotics program called Avatar. Beyond battlefield robots built like big dogs, and beyond a headless robot called Petman, the Avatar result will be a "semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine" that can smartly and effectively behave as a soldier surrogate. DARPA’s Avatar robots will be able to perform human-like military operations such as room clearing, sentry control and recovering combat casualties, tasks that may help minimize injuries and deaths.

Details, however, were not available at the time of this writing on how the soldiers and advanced surrogate robots will interact. As the report says, the Avatar program “will develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.” has described the project with phrases noting “key advancements in telepresence and remote operation of a ground system.”

The words telepresence and remote operation promptly triggered numerous conjectures in blog posts that the advanced robots may get to interact with soldiers at a distance. As expressed in ExtremeTech, a battle scenario using an Avatar robot would amount to a “bipedal drone where the controlling soldier is hundreds or thousands of miles away from war front.”

The Daily Mail would find it no surprise if these are robots operating under mind control. “The agency has reportedly already funded successful attempts to control robots with thought. The initiative seems like the next logical step in the U.S. military's robotics and remote warfare research.”

DARPA says its origins go back to 1958, the agency mission being ”to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.” DARPA’s research in robotics, however, in a global perspective, is among research efforts by other nations toward discovering what is possible in robotics for battle. Other nations also seek ways to place less human risk on their troops through robotics. Israel's Giora Katz, vice president of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, has said that "We are moving into the robotic era." Reports say over 40 countries have military-robotics programs.

Those who fear technology's limitations rather than strengths, though, see a grim side to an initiative such as . Reacting to the DARPA news, a comment on Slashdot said, “Power and bandwidth constraints aside, what could go wrong? Chinese hackers swooping in and commandeering one's army? Gives new meaning to the question ‘Where's Waldo?’"

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User comments : 12

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Deadbolt
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
Hackers could be a problem initially, but as the robots get more and more antonymous and Project Avatar evolves into Project Terminator, then the only thing you have to fear is the robot itself.
Musashi
not rated yet Feb 18, 2012
"Antonymous"...?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (6) Feb 18, 2012
Antonymous: An autonomous killer-robot controlled by Anonymous

Sounds like a fun concept.
eachus
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 18, 2012
Seems like the old problem of civilians thinking that the military does nothing but fire off their basic ammo load as soon as possible. The most important role these robots could fill would be scouting. If the robot could do nothing but walk ahead of a patrol, sending telemetry back to the unit, it would be one of the best friends a soldier ever had.

Now imagine that it's senses include cell phone detection, a "sniffer" for explosives, a metal detector*, etc. The original Predator drones are unarmed, and still get a lot of work done. I'd love for my tank loader to run one of these out ahead.

* Unfortunately someone had the "bright" idea of creating anti-personnel mines with very low metal content. This is not true of IED's and out in the bush you might be able to detect an AK-47 from a fair distance. What has been happening in Afghanistan is for "insurgents" to keep their weapons buried nearby when they are playing civilian. Taking those guns away would be a huge plus.
Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (3) Feb 18, 2012
bipedal is a huge mistake.

this thing should have at least 4 legs and scout like the most succesful of all historical man controlled scouts----dogs.

there is 'big dog' which is more like a mule. why don't they make a darpa 'small' dog, and build it like a real dog, capable of sprinting at 10mph and walking and sniffing around at 2mph or less. on 4 to 6 legs.
plasticpower
not rated yet Feb 18, 2012
Agreed, a four-legged platform has "more legs" in the battlefield. But, it's an unnatural thing to control for a human. A bipedal robot, on the other hand, directly maps to all the limbs that the controller already has.

Remember - this thing isn't autonomous. It may have stabilizers and other "autonomous" senses, but it's still directly controlled by a person and on a fairly low level, unlike things like the Big Dog.
antonima
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
I wonder how susceptible these will be to EMP
Deadbolt
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
"Antonymous"...?


Evil spell checker.
sedrickuda
not rated yet Feb 19, 2012
Sounds like science fiction,I woud like an Avatar to do my dirty work as an soldier. Surrogate doing room clearing, recovering combat casualties,and would save lives. Kind of reminds me of the Hollywood movie. Getting an Avatar shot or blown up would be costly but better than a human life. Next step,have Avatars communicating with each other like a pack or squad. Like the article said it may be a few years.
_ilbud
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 19, 2012
How about not wasting loads of money finding new and unnecessary ways for the US state to subsidise corporate wars for oil. How much more useful would the money be if it went to improving robotic surgery instead of murdering people by remote control.
plasticpower
not rated yet Feb 19, 2012
Unfortunately, murdering people by remote control has proven to be the most effective way to fight terrorism in recent years.. And since the US doesn't actually have an "enemy" like they had during the cold war, creating weaponry that can take out guerrilla fighters is actually the way to go. I would think that taking those nutcases out with a drone saves more lives than robotic surgery in the long run.
russcelt
not rated yet Feb 20, 2012
Reply to eachus
Feb 18, 2012
Disarm, de-fang, de-claw, domesticate "insurgents" looks like the obvious short-cut, except we are talking about human beings. Tyrants have been trying to accomplish this for centuries. Do the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, ring any bells?