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MIT sending smart robots into war zones to save lives

Using artificial intelligence, robotic forklifts to keep workers out of danger

January 14, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Researchers at MIT are testing a robotic forklift prototype they hope can one day unload and move military supplies in a war zone, keeping soldiers out of harm's way.

MIT scientists used robotics and artificial intelligence technology to create a prototype of what they're calling a semi-autonomous forklift. The machine, which can lift and move pallets loaded with tires, water containers or construction supplies, uses situational awareness software. That technology enables the forklift to use sensing, inference and memory to learn the layout of its environment and "move purposefully" in it, according to Seth Teller, an MIT professor of computer science and engineering, in a statement.

Matt Walter, a researcher in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, noted that when military supplies arrive in war zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan, people driving the forklifts are frequently in dangerous areas exposing themselves to enemy fire. Making the forklift an intelligent robot minimizes the risk to humans.

In Iraq, for instance, it's quite common for soldiers to "have to abandon the forklift three or four times a day because they come under fire," Walter said.

Last June, an aerospace company announced that it had built a prototype of a driverless aircraft designed to shuttle hundreds of pounds of supplies to soldiers in war zones. Ryan Wood, CEO of Broomfield, Colo.-based Frontline Aerospace Inc., said he foresees a soldier hunkered down in a military hot zone in need of ammunition or fuel. Instead of calling for a manned force to move the supplies to him, he opens his laptop and punches in his request. The V-Star, which is a robotic vehicle that can fly 600 to 1,000 miles carrying a full cargo of 400 pounds, is then loaded up and flies the supplies in without risking other lives or jamming up needed troops.

MIT researchers work on robotic forklift
MIT researchers work on robotic forklift. Credit: Jason Dorfman

And last spring, BAE Systems Inc. in Nashua, N.H., announced that it was developing miniature robots for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. The robots are designed to look like bugs and fly into war zones, sending back audio and infrared images of enemy troop positions and what weapons they're using.

This week's announcement about the robotic forklift notes that researches used computer code developed for the autonomous vehicle that MIT entered into DARPA's Grand Challenge auto race, in which different universities and organizations raced driverless vehicles.

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