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US researchers invent wall climbing robot

T V Parasuram in Washington | July 10, 2003 12:18 IST

Technological advances unimaginable few years ago are now a reality with researchers in the United States working on devices like bullet-detecting radars and robots that can climb walls and run over rough terrain.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the Pentagon's 'technological engine', is studying vulnerabilities in the US military system and developing defences against them.

In one of their efforts, researchers are studying insects: how they run and jump, how geckos climb walls and walk on ceilings, how flies avoid capture, and how an octopus hides. These observations are crucial to finding new approaches to locomotion and highly adaptive camouflage.

Rhex, a robot with legs, is one result of this groundbreaking research. This prototype, developed through research by Canadian and American technicians, has the ability to run over rough terrain, and even swim.

The next goal is to furnish Rhex with gecko-like feet, enabling it to climb walls and ceilings, giving it the same mobility as Spiderman-like reptiles.

Eventually, Rhex will have a camera and biochemical sensors to detect substances in the atmosphere.

The hope is that these 'New Age' technologies will not only prevent terrorist attacks, but also make the battleground safer for US soldiers.

Tony Tether, director of DARPA, told the House Armed Services' Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities in his testimony on March 27 this year that although 'computer technology is at the forefront in this new war on terrorism', computers 'remain fundamentally unintelligent and difficult to use. Something dramatically different is needed'.

That something different is 'cognitive computing'.

Tether and his researchers envision new cognitive computing systems that will be smarter, more interactive and more like their human counterparts.

Researchers at DARPA predict the development of systems that will have the ability to reason in their own environment and to communicate their goals and capabilities.

The computers of the future will be able to learn and teach and even be able to communicate with their users.

"The idea is not simply to replace people with machines, but to team people with robots to create a more capable, agile and cost-effective force that lowers US casualties," Tether told the subcommittee.

A network of systems is in development that includes manned and unmanned ground and air systems, creating brigade-sized formations 'that have the lethality and survivability of an armoured heavy force, deployability of an airborne force, and the tactical agility of an air-assault force'.

Another Pentagon group, the Technical Support Working Group, has projects in development to outwit efforts by would-be terrorists, including mass transit surveillance systems, a cooling system for body armour, a technique for extracting DNA from fingerprints, and a luggage irradiation machine that would destroy undetected biological and chemical weapons.

The group also is developing a handheld explosives detector, which is significantly smaller than detectors available today.

The portability and effectiveness of this handheld device will enable law enforcement agencies to identify real threats and minimise the inconveniences of false alarms.

To help penetrate complex underground facilities and caves where adversaries hide critical assets, US researchers are developing seismic, acoustic, electro-optical, radio frequency, and chemical sensor technologies that will be able to tell soldiers the purpose of each underground facility by exposing its internal structures and vulnerabilities.

Investigators are studying the response of sleep-deprived monkeys given a new class of drugs called ampakines, which may eliminate the negative effects of sleep deprivation.

This new class of drugs may have positive implications for soldiers or pilots now enduring long missions and currently being treated with traditional stimulants, causing greater side effects.

The 'Smart Shirt', which will track heart and respiration rate, body temperature, and voice and data communication and transmit the information to a monitoring station, holds promise for emergency medical workers.

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