April 03, 2015      

The spherical GuardBot may look like a toy, but it demonstrates how an unusual design can be directed at different markets, from aerospace and military to exploration and even entertainment.

Beyond treads, feet, or wings are ball-shaped robots. The U.S. Marine Corps has tested the GuardBot, a spherical robot that is quiet, amphibious, and outfitted with cameras. It’s initially intended for sentry duty, operating on a preset route and feeding video back to a remote operator.

Looking for Robot Soldiers

As with other emerging technologies, the U.S. military is keenly interested in applications for robotics. The best known are the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) deployed for reconnaissance and remote-controlled combat. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has also funded research in exoskeletons to enhance strength, as predicted in science fiction such as Starship Troopers or The Edge of Tomorrow.

Less flashy than power suits but closer to deployment are “pack mules” and tracked robots for explosives removal and remote weapons operation. Examples include iRobot’s PackBot, Qinetiq’s TALON, and Foster-Miller’s Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), respectively.

Quadruped robots have the advantage of being able to move across uneven terrain, and there are ongoing competitions to build bipedal androids that can move and operate like humans. DARPA’s Robotics Challenge is open to teams from around the world and shows the potential for disaster response using robots.

“Tracked robots had a good push from the military. There was an early DARPA report on friction that wasn’t very favorable on spherical designs,” said Peter Muhlrad, president of GuardBot Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “We’ve had very favorable results, however; GuardBot can roll up to 20 mph on land or 4 knots. It’s fully amphibious.”

Rugged roller

The technology was first developed at Uppsala University in Sweden, and Viktor Kaznov invented Rotundus AB’s GroundBot. Rotundus then shared the patents with GuardBot Inc., a sibling company to American Unmanned Systems LLC, which specializes in remote-controlled aircraft such as helicopters.

The robotic ball was designed in 2004 for a European Space Agency mission to Mars. Researchers at Angstrom Aerospace Corp. prepared an inflatable version. Angstrom CEO Fredrik Bruhn was a co-founder of Rotundus.

Rotundus and GroundBot are no longer active. They stopped working on it after the original design,” Muhlrad said. “We’ve since improved the technology, but we haven’t contacted NASA yet.”

“It took us nine months to develop a small ball we called ‘Harvey.’ It stands for ‘Highly Adaptive Robotic Vehicle,'” Muhlrad said. “We had our first prototype, then we perfected it over another nine months, with integrated sensors.”

The round robot combines ruggedness with mobility. The robot moves thanks to an internal motor and a pendulum that shifts its low center of gravity, so the design has no external moving parts to get clogged with sand or snow. Interest shifted from NASA to tasks that are too “dirty, dull, or dangerous” for human soldiers.

All-terrain round robot

GuardBot in the snow.

Spherical specs

The initial version of the GuardBot can roll about 6 mph on land and 3 mph on water. It has two 360-degree cameras mounted in glass domes on the sides, and it can include sensors to detect radioactivity, gas, and illegal drugs.

The prototype weighs 54 lb. and is 2 ft. in diameter, although it could be scaled up or down. The robotic sphere is “fully scalable,” said Muhlrad. “We have one that’s 24 in. in diameter, a new one that’s 7 in. in diameter, and we’re working on one that’s 5.5 in. in diameter,” he said.

The U.S. military has expressed interest in the smaller range, which could be used to search under vehicles, and GuardBot officials said a larger version might even carry a human passenger.

“We’ve got an engineering model of a GuardBot that’s 9 ft. in diameter; we’re talking to investors about that,” Muhlrad said. “The upcoming movie Jurassic World has a computer-generated version similar to our preliminary design.”

The standard-size GuardBot can carry a payload up to 14 in. in diameter, or 12 in. in volume. The space can be populated with sensors, acoustics, optical imagers, lasers, or GPS, said Muhlrad.

The GuardBot has already been tested for harbor patrols, because it floats and can easily move from land to water. This is reminiscent of Rover, the robotic sentry in The Prisoner.

Command and control

GuardBot has also developed a new operating control unit, whose features include easy-to-use joysticks, Muhlrad said. It should be easy to operate, especially for a generation used to video game controls, he added.

“Very little operator training is required,” Muhlrad told Robotics Business Review. “In fact, we found that the drivers want to walk with GuardBot rather than let it go on a navigated route.”

“We are building [and] have tested in a lab a mesh network,” he said. “One GuardBot becomes a radio node, so we can operate radio chat that can move with the devices.”

“We’re also working on a number of different stabilization algorithms,” Muhlrad said.

GuardBot uses encrypted radio communications, similar to what’s being used in the security industry, said Muhlrad. “The level of security can be increased based on the level of government control.”

“We’re developing an autopilot, to make them autonomous,” he said. “Our big achievement lately is laser detection and Raman spectroscopy.”

Who’s watching the robotic warriors?

Military systems such as GuardBot are a long way from popular fears of the robot apocalypse, but there are ethical concerns with any new technology. Analysts have debated whether moving human troops out of harm’s way and replacing them with remote-controlled drones makes war too impersonal. If one side in a conflict is less afraid of casualties, might it be more belligerent?

In addition, just as U.S. forces have learned to defend against improvised explosive devices, other nations and groups are seeking similar robotic combat capabilities. For instance, Ireland’s LE James Joyce is designed to control drones and robotic subs, and Russia is aggressively pursuing military robotics research. The U.S. Navy is working on robotic submarine hunters. Could a robotics arms race be in the offing?

Muhlrad has acknowledged that the GuardBot could be used to deliver explosives. Imagine mines in the water or on land that could lie in wait, be switched on remotely, and then seek their targets on their own. Could control and accountability be maintained?

“That is an option, to bring in a neutralization capability, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “There are many other applications that we are actively pursuing.”

This technology is useful for “standoff” detection of explosives and chemicals. Muhlrad cited heightened security concerns after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. “Imagine if our robot could follow the trail and spot a bomb from two to three yards away,” he said.

GuardBot adapts to friendlier applications

The U.S. Marine Corps is still evaluating the GuardBot. Muhlrad said that demonstrations have occurred indoors for various police departments and will soon move out to a range. In addition to the New York City Police Department, GuardBot has been talking with authorities in Westchester County and Newark, N.J. A foreign police department has also expressed interest, according to Muhlrad.

Because the GuardBot is quiet and nonthreatening to animals, it could have agricultural applications. “We would like to put in a spectral sensor for moisture,” said Muhlrad, who added that his company is currently testing an electromagnetic sensor to check vegetation.

For example, GuardBot could be used for telepresence or detection in a nursing home. “The vehicle can roll anywhere, operate autonomously, or follow a patient by their gown color,” Muhlrad said. “Or in the case of Ebola, in a [quarantined] area, it could allow for remote operation and assessment.”

Another potential application, said Muhlrad, would be search and rescue missions after a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, where a city is flooded. “GuardBot and its cameras could roll on dry land, into the water, and out again,” he said.

GuardBot’s nonthreatening nature is reminiscent of the new droid glimpsed in teasers for Star Wars: Episode VII. “We hope to contact zoos and aquariums,” Muhlrad said. “We’re developing an application for driving to a remote location. Imagine if children could drive a robot around and see animals rather than watch them through a cage.”

Amphibious spherical robot

GuardBot is at home on land and in the water.

Muhlrad said that GuardBot’s price depends on the sensor suites installed into it.
“Thermal imaging ranges from $150,000 to $200,000,” he said. “Lasers for bomb detection also start out at a higher price; we usually quote based on the mission.”

Smaller models have less payload, but they also probably cost less. On the other hand, Muhlrad noted, they can go under cars, in tunnels, or through pipelines, which could be very useful.

“Draft occupies about a third of GuardBot’s real estate,” said Muhlrad. “We’ve done testing with sonar and cameras pointing underwater. We could eventually do 300-ft. seabed mapping and hydrographic scanning.”

GuardBot is looking at a vehicle that would carry several robots into the ocean for observation from the surface. They would then roll back to land, Muhlrad said. This could be useful for checking oil rigs or ecologically sensitive areas.

The GuardBot was tested for sports imaging and broadcasting at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City. More recently, it was tested on a golf course. “We could paint it white so it looks like a golf ball,” said Muhlrad. “It could carry cameras and radios, and we could transmit broadcasts directly from the GuardBot.”

“We are just starting to go into the market,” Muhlrad said. “The key thing is that we have developed some very strong technology. Now that we’ve demonstrated the potential of our scalable, unique robot, hopefully we can attract interest into expanding.”