The Future is Here: AirMule’s Autonomous Demo Flight

airmule1Vertical Take-Off and Landing craft have been the subject of military developers for some time. In addition to being able to deploy from landing strips that are damaged or small for conventional aircraft, they are also able to navigate terrain and land where other craft cannot. Add to that the ability to hover and fly close to the ground, and you have a craft that can also provide support while avoiding IEDs and landmines.

One concept that incorporates all of these features is the AirMule, a compact, unmanned, single-engine vehicle that is being developed by Tactical Robotics in Israel. In January of 2013, the company unveiled the prototype which they claimed was created for the sake of supporting military personnel,  evacuating the wounded, and conducting remote reconnaissance missions.

airmule-1Now, less than a year later, the company conducted a demonstration with their prototype aircraft recently demonstrated its ability to fly autonomously, bringing it one step closer to carrying out a full mission demo. During the test, which took place in December, the craft autonomously performed a vertical take-off, flew to the end of a runway, then turned around on the spot and flew back to its starting point.

All the while, it maintained altitude using two laser altimeters, while maintaining positioning via a combination of GPS, an inertial navigation system, and optical reference to markers on the ground. These autonomous systems, which allow it to fly on its own, can also be countermanded in favor of remote control, in case a mission seems particularly harry and requires a human controller.

airmule-0In its current form, the AirMule possesses many advantages over other VTOL craft, such as helicopters. For starters, it weighs only 770 kg (1,700 lb) – as opposed to a Bell UH-1 empty weights of 2,365 kg (5,215 lbs) – can carry a payload of up to 640 kg (1,400 lb), has a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph), and can reach a maximum altitude of 12,000 ft (3,658 m).

In short, it has a better mass to carrying capacity ratio than a helicopter, comparable performance, and can land and take-off within an area of 40 square meters (430.5 sq ft), which is significantly smaller than what a manned helicopter requires for a safe landing. The internal rotor blades are reportedly also much quieter than those of a helicopter, giving the matte-black AirMule some added stealth.

BD_atlasrobotPlans now call for “full mission demonstrations” next year, utilizing a second prototype that is currently under construction. And when complete, this vehicle and those like it can expected to be deployed to many areas of the world, assisting Coalition and other forces in dirty, dangerous environments where landmines, IEDs and other man-made and natural hazards are common.

Alongside machines like the Alpha Dog, LS3 or Wildcat, machines that were built by Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google) to offer transport and support to infantry in difficult terrain, efforts to “unman the front lines” through the use of autonomous drones or remote-controlled robots continue. Clearly, the future battlefield is a place where robots where will be offering a rather big hand!


And be sure to check this video of the AirMule demonstration, showing the vehicle take-off, hover, fly around, and then come in for a landing:


Judgement Day Update: The Robotic Bartender and DARPA’s Latest Hand

robot_bartenderRobots have come a long way in recent years, haven’t they? From their humble beginnings, servicing human beings with menial tasks and replacing humans on the assembly line, they now appear poised to take over other, more complex tasks as well. Between private companies and DARPA-developed concepts, it seems like just a matter of time before a fully-functioning machine is capable of performing all our work for us.

One such task-mastering robot was featured at the Milan Design Week this year, an event where fashion tales center stage. It’s known as the Makr Shakr, a set of robotic arms that are capable of mixing drinks, slicing fruit, and capable of making millions of different recipes. The result of a collaborative effort between MIT SENSEable City Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati, an Italian architecture firm, this robot is apparently able to match wits with any human bartender.

robot_bartender1While at the Milan Design Week, the three robotic arms put on quite the show, demonstrating their abilities to a crowd of wowed spectators. According to the website, this technology is not just a bar aid, but part of a larger movement in robotics:

Makr Shakr aims to show the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ paradigm through the simple process design-make-enjoy, and in just the time needed to prepare a new cocktail.

In a press release, the company described the process. It begins with the user downloading an app to create their order to the smartphone as well as peruse the recipes that other users have come up with. They then communicate the order to the Makr Shakr and “[the] cocktail is then crafted by three robotic arms, whose movements reproduce every action of a barman–from the shaking of a Martini to the muddling of a Mojito, and even the thin slicing of a lemon garnish.”

robot_bartender2Inspired by the ballerina Roberto Bolle, whose “movements were filmed and used as input for the programming of the Makr Shakr robots”, the arms appear most graceful when they do their work. In addition, the design system monitors exactly how much booze each patron is consuming, which, in theory, could let the robot-bartenders know when it’s time to cut off designers who have thrown back a few too many.

Check out the video of the Makr Shakr in action:

Another major breakthrough comes, yet again, from DARPA. For years now, they have been working with numerous companies and design and research firms in order to create truly ambulatory and dextrous robot limbs. In some cases, as with the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), this involves creating a machine that can carry supplies and keep up with troops. In others, this involves the creation of robotic hands and limbs to help wounded veterans recover and lead normal lives again.

And you may recall earlier this year when DARPA unveiled a cheap design for a robotic hand that was able to use tools and perform complex tasks (like changing a tire). More recently, it showcased a design for a three-fingered robot, designed in conjunction with the firm iRobot – the makers of the robotic 3D printer – and with support from Harvard and Yale, that is capable of unlocking and opening doors. Kind of scary really…


The arm is the latest to come out of the Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program, a program designed to create robots that are no longer expensive, cumbersome, and dependent on human operators. Using a Kinect to zero in on the object’s location before moving in to grab the item, the arm is capable of picking up thin objects lying flat, like a laminated card or key. In addition, the hand’s three-finger configuration is versatile, strong, and therefore capable of handling objects of varying size and complexity.

When put to the test (as shown in the video below), the hand was able to pick up a metal key, insert it into a lock, and open a door without any assistance. Naturally, a human operator is still required at this stage, but the use of a Kinect sensor to identify objects shows a degree of autonomous capability, and the software behind its programming is still in the early development phase.

And while the hand isn’t exactly cheap by everyday standards, the production cost has been dramatically reduced. Hands fabricated in batches of 1,000 or more can be produced for $3,000 per unit, which is substantially less than the current cost of $50,000 per unit for similar technology. And as usual, DARPA has its eye on future development, creating hands that would be used in hazardous situations – such as diffusing IEDs on the battlefield – as well as civilian and post-combat applications (i.e. prosthetics).

And of course, there’s a video for the ARM in action as well. Check it out, and then decide for yourself if you need to be scared yet:


The Legged Squad Support System

Ever since man began killing man in an organized fashion – i.e. the rise of armies –  political and military leaders have struggled with the problem of how to keep them supplied. As Napoleon himself stated in the early 19th century, “An army marches on its stomach”. Since his time, things have not improved drastically. Even with the advent of the steam train, trucks and airplanes, a fully-loaded soldier must still carry upwards of 90 lbs of equipment on their backs. Not an easy task, especially when marching through particularly hot, wet, or rugged terrain.

Well it just so happens that DARPA and the United States Marine Corps might be in possession of something that can help real soon. A few years back, they awarded a contract to an engineering firm named Boston Dynamics to develop a prototype for Darpa’s Legged Squad Support System (LS3). This system calls for a walking quadruped robot that will augment squads by being able to carry equipment autonomously over the kinds of complex terrain where traditional tactical vehicles can’t go.

The walker will reportedly be able to carry a payload of 40o pounds over as much as 20 miles and provide 24 hours of self-sustained capability. In addition, it requires no drivers or remote controllers, since it will be fitted with remote sensors that will allow it to follow the team leader, and a GPS so it can travel to predesignated coordinates. Already, the prototype LS3 has taken its first steps, and the USMC hopes to have some in the field sometime this decade.

One has to wonder… is the beginning of AT-AT walkers and other Star Wars stuff? If so, then I’m thinking we might just be seeing some prototypes for hover cars and lightsabers very soon. Like many fanboys, I was a little kid when the originals came out. Now, like them, I’m in my thirties and thinking I’ve waited long enough! Check out the video below to see the LS3 in action: