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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Real-world transformers

The new Transformers movie is science fiction at its most fantastic, featuring fighting robots that shift shape to fight each other, for example, transforming from an aircraft to a ground vehicle.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has set it sights on developing machines with similar capabilities, although they are clearly still a few decades away from matching Optimus Prime.

The military already has uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs) like the Predator, and
uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs) such as Talon, both of which have been used extensively in Iraq. Now they'd like something that can combine the abilities of both.

This document describes a contract for "Transforming [aerial] vehicles that land, transforming into UGVs capable of inspecting caves and/or buildings to find people" awarded to Thorpe Seeop, Arizona, US, by the US Army (scroll down to "Small Scale Unmanned Air Vehicle").

The company's starting point was the company's Spinwing UAV, an unusual craft that transforms mid-flight from an airplane into a helicopter.

This idea was the taken further by Brian Yamauchi of iRobot (the company behind a widely-used ground vehicle called PackBot). Yamauchi came up with Griffon, a hybrid designed to "combine the speed and range of a UAV with the precise ground mobility of a UGV."

Griffon has a powered parafoil wing that attaches to the PackBot chassis. Software enhancements include, "semi-autonomous launch and landing software [that] will assist the operator in transitioning from ground to air modes and back."

The Griffon prototype took off with an 11-metre parafoil wing and, although it could hardly be described as graceful, the concept proved viable as this video shows. Things did not always go quite so smoothly, however, as another clip reveals. Oops.

Interestingly, the US Air Force Research Laboratory has its own plans. Fred Davis, of the Assessment and Demonstrations Division recently told me that they are looking at small UAVs that can morph or otherwise change their shape, and switch between different modes. These might include flying, perching and hopping or crawling. This would extend their endurance, as well as allowing them to go into buildings.

Morphing wings have been investigated for some time, but the new craft would be more capable, for example, with wings which converted to legs. "We call them Transformers," said Davis.

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