Do the 'bots have what it takes?

Robots fighting in the rainforest?
Robots fighting in the rainforest?


    Robots fighting in the rainforest?


Robots fighting in the rainforest? 02:21

Story highlights

  • Navy's Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research tests robots
  • New facility can create extreme weather environments to challenge newest models
  • LASR "bridges the gap between a bench and the real world," facility chief says
  • It can replicate desert, rain forest, rocky woodland and beach environments
Most people's morning routines include checking the weather for their work commute. But for U.S. Navy scientist Gregory Scott, it's all about the weather inside his office.
Scott works at the Navy's Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research, or LASR, a new facility that can create the most extreme weather environments to test the Navy's newest robots.
Today, he is working out of a simulated desert in the middle of Washington, D.C., testing a robotic arm that digs for explosive devices in the sand. Tomorrow, he could be testing a robot in the facility's steamy rain forest.
"You have to make sure you bring the right clothes for the right day," Scott said. "But otherwise, it's a pretty rewarding experience ... especially knowing we're able to create a better product for our men and women out in the field to keep them safe and support their work."
And that's precisely the point. A robot may work just fine in an air-conditioned office. But can it handle the sand, water and fire of real-life wars and rescue operations? The multimillion-dollar facility is designed to build better robots, pumping up the severity of simulated nature to see if they can handle extreme environments.
Alan Schultz runs the facility.
"What this facility does is bridge the gap between a bench and the real world," Schultz said. "So you develop your initial work on a lab bench, but then you can bring it here, work in one of our environments, and you have an environment that's closer to the real world and less like the laboratory bench."
The facility's desert environment is capable of creating a massive sandstorm with a 2½-foot-deep sand pit and rock-like walls. The room can also be adjusted to replicate day and night conditions.
"Ground vehicles need to crawl under the sand, or crawl on the sand, or they can crawl rock surfaces," Schultz said. "I have folks doing work on sensors; how to detect things, for example, like IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades."
A stroll down the hall takes you to a humid, 80-degree, Southeast Asian-inspired rain forest where a torrential downpour can be simulated at the flip of a switch.
"It was decided that this would be an important environment for the future," Schultz said, "that we would be able to operate in these wet, moist, rainy, high-temperature environments."
Robotic sensors are tested in the high humidity and wet environment, along with radio communication, which can also be affected by water. Traversing the jungle can be difficult for robots.
"There are places where you will sink into the mud 3 or 4 feet. There's a small stream in here. There's a pond," Schultz said. "If you think about tracked wheels or round wheels, or legged locomotion, serpentine locomotion, this is a hard environment for people working on mobility and navigation. How do you get through this dense environment?"
And there's more: an outdoor rocky woodland forest, an open area used for flying drones inside, and a 45-by-25-foot pool that can produce waves and a beach to test the swimming robots.
Schultz says the facility will save the Defense Department money in the long run. When a radar that was supposed to operate down to minus 25 degrees was tested in a temperature-controlled chamber, $100,000 was saved. The radar failed at 20 degrees, Schultz said, and would have most likely failed on the flight to field testing.
"The point of this is it's very expensive to go out to a desert," he said. "It's expensive to go out to the Arctic. It's expensive to go to a rain forest. It's expensive to do field trials."