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Spy robot knows when to hide

Military Robot by Lockheed Martin
Military Robot by Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin

The spy quickly darts behind a garbage can and reassesses the situation. Under cover of darkness, infrared sensors indicate three potential hostiles – all a comfortable 100 meters away. Seismic sensors indicate a armored vehicle heading away from the current position, and the GPS sensors show a zig-zag path to the first way-point – an open bay door to a small warehouse.

The spy moves. Within moments the spy enters the warehouse, keeping behind crates as he moves stealthily toward an inner door and his target – moving silently on 4 small wheels.

This is no uber-human spy but a intelligent machine, a next-generation prototype in the field of covert robotics.

The robot, developed by Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratory, builds a 3d model of its surroundings via an undetectable laser scanner. In addition, if features ultra sensitive acoustic sensors which can detect and distinguish footsteps, vehicles, and even nearby breathing. After developing a similarly stealthy aerial drone last year, Lockheed hopes to ultimately deliver an autonomous robot that can operate behind enemy lines without being detected.

Lead Lockheed engineer Brian Satterfield told New Scientist the robot was designed to operate within four constraints: "Avoiding visible detection by sentries of known locations, avoiding potential detection by sentries whose positions were unknown, avoiding areas in which the robot would have no means of escape, and, as this robot was designed to run at night, avoiding areas that were well lit." To make it hard to see in the dark, the robot was also painted matte black.

Advanced programming enables the robot to determine if it is in danger of being detected and ascertain the best possible, robot-accessible hiding places. Still, current programming is limited and much work is needed on its computer systems before being deployed.

"Significant AI (artificial intelligence) work will be needed to produce a robot which can act covertly in a hostile setting," said Len Getterberg, a military technology analyst based in Long Beach. "For instance, the robot will need to consider its own shape and size, to be aware of each hostiles' individual line of view, etc."

Although potential missions are envisioned to be primarily covert reconnaissance, the robots could also be rigged to carry explosive ordinance deep into hostile territory for surgical strikes.