Shape of things to comeU.S. military wants jumping robot

Published 8 May 2009

DARPA funds a program to develop a hopping robot; the robot will be able to jump stairs and go over obstacles; it will be used for urban reconnaissance and intelligence gathering — although DARPA admits it could also be fitted with a raft of weapons; one of the requirement for the hopping robot: “’stick’ accurate landings”

One of our favorite generals is James “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin (he was called “The Jumping General” because he insisted on taking part in combat drops with the paratroopers he commanded). He rose to the rank of Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army and took part in many important operations during the Second World War, among them Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily), Mission Boston on D-Day, and Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. He had strong influence on early thinking about airborne battle tactics, writing the famous FM 31-30: Tactics and Technique of Air-Borne Troops.
Jumpin’ Jim Gavin was then, jumping robot is now: Jumping, or hopping, robots may soon find a role in the U.S. military. Sandia National Laboratories’ prototype Urban Hopper can leap eight meters vertically to clear walls or fences. Now robot maker Boston Dynamics has been given a contract to produce a military version with a bit more self-control.

The program is funded by, who else, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which says it wants the hopper for urban reconnaissance and intelligence gathering — although it admits it could also be fitted with a raft of weapons. DARPA requirements for the jumping robot read as if they were written for a gymnast training for the Olympics — “ability to make precise hops,” “’stick’ accurate landings,” “precision guided hopping,” and “precision hop performance.

Driven by an electric motor, Sandia’s shoe box-sized prototype rolls along on wheels. It jumps using a gas piston which is powered by methylacetylene and nitrous oxide. Its leaps so far are pretty haphazard. “The existing hoppers do not maintain a stable orientation during hops, but tumble randomly,” says DARPA spokesman Mark Peterson.
The next generation of hoppers should be able to jump up stairs or leap through open windows. Boston Dynamics expects to deliver the improved hopper in late 2010. Under a program called Future Combat Systems (FCS), the Pentagon wants one third of its forces to be robotic by 2015.