Pentagon Explores Using Segways in Battle
- Pentagon Explores Using Segways in Battle
By MICHAEL P. REGAN
NEW YORK (AP) - It's called the Segway Human Transporter, but the Pentagon is
drafting the two-wheeled scooter as part of a plan to develop battlefield
robots that think on their own and communicate with troops.
The program is still in the research phase, so the self-balancing scooters
aren't expected to report to boot camp anytime soon.
So far, university researchers armed with Pentagon funding have programmed
Segway robots that can open doors, avoid obstacles, and chase soccer balls - all
without human control.
Researchers say potential applications for the robots include performing
search missions on the battlefield, transporting injured soldiers to safety, or
following humans around while hauling their gear.
Dean Kamen, the Segway's inventor, told The Associated Press he had no
qualms about enlisting his brainchild into the military.
``You build a car and it can either be used as an ambulance, or it can drive
your troops around,'' he said. ``My personal reason for liking (this program)
is we would love to get more Segways at universities. The more we have our
technology among the tech world, particularly the young geeks, it could only help
Any useful applications developed by universities could help kickstart badly
needed sales for the fledgling scooter company.
When the scooters were unveiled with great fanfare in 2001, Kamen's
supporters predicted millions would be sold, transforming urban transportation. But in
September, when company issued a voluntary recall to fix a problem that caused
riders to fall off when the batteries run low, it was disclosed that only
6,000 Segways had been sold.
Since the Segways retail for $3,995 and $4,495, depending on the model, new
sales to the government or any other big customer could ``help lower the price
and let more people afford it,'' said John Morrell, chief development engineer
for privately held Segway LLC.
So far, the military program involves 15 Segways, which were delivered to
university and government research labs over the last few months. The project is
funded as part of a program in which the Pentagon is spending $26 million this
year to develop software for autonomous systems.
Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency, said the idea is to let researchers concentrate on what the agency
calls Mobile Autonomous Robot Software, rather than the mode of
transportation. The Segway, which uses gyroscopes to balance itself, provides a common
platform on which researchers can swap open-source programs.
``One of the focuses of this program is to develop software that would allow
the robotic system to learn, so it can better perceive its outside
environment,'' Walker said.
The Segway can make much tighter turns than four-wheeled robotic vehicles
currently used in the military and by researchers, and its high center of gravity
means cameras and sensors can be placed several feet above the ground - a
height more suitable for interacting with humans.
The scooters were modified by software engineers at Segway so they could be
controlled by laptop computers. The researchers then loaded them up with
cameras, sensors, communications gear and other gadgets.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology built a Segway robot
that can navigate hallways and open doors.
At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Segways are being used as part
of a lab's ongoing efforts to build robots that can play soccer with humans. So
far, the robot can chase an orange soccer ball and kick it. The next goal is
to teach the robot the rules of the game and get it to communicate with human
``They will come together not as a master-slave relationship, with the human
telling the robot what to do,'' , said computer science professor Manuela
Veloso. ``The human and robot will be part of the same task.''
University of Southern California researchers are working on ways to get the
Segway to act as a ``mule'' that follows humans around, carrying their gear.
The robotic Segway hauls as much as 100 pounds.
Another USC project involves controlling the way the Segway pitches and
bounces over rough terrain so it can carry sensitive cargo, perhaps an injured
human, according to lead researcher Gaurav Sukhatme.
A University of Pennsylvania lab is getting a robot-controlled Segway to
communicate with an autonomous robotic blimp and small, truck-like vehicles so
they can work as a team to find a designated object in a certain geographic area.
The robots would navigate and communicate with each other autonomously, but a
human would oversee the whole network.
``The human operator can basically interrogate the robots,'' said Jim Keller,
a project manager. ``If a robot has seen something it thinks is interesting,
it will send an alert back. The human operator will get more images by
bringing in other robots to look at the same location from whatever their perspective
The researchers tried the robots out at Fort Benning in Georgia a few months
ago. But mostly they've been testing them out at the university's football
The athletes who congregate there ``roll their eyes when they see us
coming,'' Keller said.
On the Net:
The Mobile Autonomous Robot Software program:
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