BALTIMORE — With small, perky ears and big, round eyes, the Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot may look like your average teddy bear, but standing 6-feet tall and weighing 380 pounds, this bear isn’t built to be cuddled.
Engineers at College Park-based Vecna Technologies Inc. have developed the human-shaped robot, known as the BEAR, to carry wounded soldiers from dangerous battlefields with forklift-like arms.
U.S. soldiers risk their lives to pull fallen friends from harm’s way, said Vecna President Daniel Theobald, a hazard he hopes the BEAR can eliminate when it’s ready for mass production in three to five years.
The robot has the face of a teddy bear to comfort soldiers who might fear the otherwise “grotesque-looking” machine, Theobald said.
“Let’s send an object out there that we don’t have to write home to its wife or family if it gets shot,” Theobald said. “If the BEAR takes a few rounds or gets shot at, who cares? It’s just a piece of technology.”
Each battery-operated BEAR could cost between $50,000 and $300,000, depending on its features and number of customized parts, Theobald said, meaning that BEAR’s investors, including the Department of Defense and congressional appropriations, might not find the machine so expendable.
“As much as possible we try to go with the off-the-shelf solution,” Theobald said. “It’s not until over time when those products are more widely distributed and have a broader consumer base that the economics work out to really drive the prices down.”
So far, the project’s expenses have totaled about $3 million, a third of which has been funded by the military, and could reach upwards of $30 million when finally completed, Vecna officials said.
Gary Gilbert, the portfolio manager for robotics at the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center in Frederick, added that between additional military funding and congressional appropriations, more than $1 million more in government money will be funneled Vecna’s way.
Though the BEAR is pricy, Gilbert said, “If one of these robots saves one soldier’s life, I’d consider the project well worth it, and I think the American people would, too.”
Multiple projects aimed at developing robots to extract wounded soldiers have been in the works for more than five years, Gilbert said, but none have the flexibility or agility of the BEAR. One small robot drags a sled, and a larger robot uses a conveyor belt to collect soldiers and pull them to safety.
“There are no robots right now that are small enough to go where a human would go but still lift a significant amount of weight,” Theobald said.
To what degree the BEAR or other robots could tend to wounded soldiers remains to be seen, Gilbert said, but robots today cannot provide the same care as a human medic.
Engineers at Vecna are in the process of smoothing out the BEAR’s arm movements when a soldier is retrieved, Gilbert added, an action some experts say could do more harm than good if not executed properly.
“Questions that would arise in this particular area would be whether or not the robot or the mechanical manipulation can be significantly agile to remove the soldier without adding additional injuries,” said Kenneth Gabriel, a senior research scholar at the Center for Integrated Security and Logistics at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Vecna, which emphasizes community service, hopes the machine will have a variety of other uses, too, ranging from daily tasks like lifting heavy equipment to rare events like pulling victims from rubble after a natural disaster.
Though the BEAR can move over uneven surfaces, including forest trails and stairs, the current model cannot sustain adversities such as heavy gunfire or fires.
Developers are bolstering the machine’s seventh version, which will be completed in about two years, with features such as armor and fire protection, Theobald said. He added that Vecna hopes the final robot, which will weigh about 250 pounds, will be able to lift twice that much.
As a “semi-autonomous system,” the robot will not be “wandering around, completely unsupervised,” but the machine should be able to complete some tasks without human direction, Theobald said.
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