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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Hurt Locker Robots

From L to R, mechanical and aeropace engineering professor Tom Bewley; and MAE grad students Andrew Cavender, Ph.D. ’09, Chris Schmidt-Wetekam, Marshall ’04, Ph.D. ’09, and Ph.D. student Nick Morozovsky.

As featured in the Oscar-winning movie Hurt Locker, small robotic vehicles already play a key role in modern urban warfare. Meanwhile, engineers at UC San Diego are exploring new roles for small robotic systems in combat, which could also lead to greater use in homeland security, border patrol, search and rescue, and planetary exploration.

Nick Morozovsky, Ph.D. student, Chris Schmidt-Wetekam, Marshall ’04, Ph.D. ’09, and Andrew Cavender, Ph.D. ’09, mechanical engineering students in the UCSD Coordinated Robotics Lab, together with their ­professor, Thomas Bewley, have just released the latest generation of agile, treaded vehicles. Called Switchblade, it can pop wheelies, climb stairs and rubble, and carry substantial payloads such as real-time video. It also carries light detection and ranging, an optical remote sensing technology, chemical, radiation and biological sensors, as well as GPS. The robot can literally run circles around other treaded vehicles in its class, and can be produced for a fraction of the cost.

“With current ground robotic systems, the primary application today is bomb disposal,” Bewley says. “The focus of our lab is on the deployment of multiple inexpensive robots for the exploration of dangerous and confined environments, such as buildings, caves, mines, and tunnels.”

In collaboration with UCSD computer science professor Yoav Freund, Bewley and his students are working on the construction of a 3D virtual environment for Switchblade— similar to a modern first-person, shooter video game. They develop this from snapshots taken by the robot as it moves through a physical space, such as a building. The operator can explore this virtual environment, quickly ­assimilating the information acquired, and then make informed decisions about what to do next.

For more on Switchblade and the latest results of the team’s tests go to: robotics.ucsd.edu.

—Andrea Siedsma