Vecna’s “Nerds” Ready BEAR Robot for First Field Test at Georgia Army Base

Imagine a soldier is wounded in the middle of a violent firefight in the streets of Mosul, Iraq. With bullets whizzing in every direction, it’s almost guaranteed that a medic would be shot in a rescue attempt. Enter the BEAR robot, which rolls up to the wounded soldier, scoops her up in its arms, and spirits her away to safety. This scenario, still hypothetical at this point, is the initial aim of the BEAR (Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot).

Vecna Technologies, which developed the BEAR in Cambridge, MA, for the U.S. Army, tells Xconomy that the rescue robot is expected to be put through its paces for the first time at Fort Benning, GA, as early as mid-April, representing a major milestone in its development. “We’re a bunch of nerds mostly from MIT, Stanford, and other nerdy schools,” says Andrew Allen, an engineer who is managing the project at Vecna. “We need the feedback from the field to know what are the technical challenges, so that the soldiers in the field can be helped by this system.”

Video footage of similar field tests in 2008 made a YouTube sensation of Waltham, MA-based Boston Dynamics’ BigDog, a stunningly agile quadruped robot. (A YouTube clip of the robotic canine has been viewed more than 8 million times and counting.) The BEAR will undergo some of the same tests as the BigDog, including a climbing exercise and a swift kick by a soldier intended to gauge its ruggedness and stability, says Allen.

Though designed for some of the same missions as BigDog, the BEAR is a humanoid robot that stands 6.5 feet tall on two legs. The legs bend at the hip and knee joints and both the thigh and calf segments have treads, enabling the robot to kneel and drive like a tank (it can’t yet walk upright). On its treads, the robot can carry up to 500 pounds in its hydraulic-powered arms, a level of strength that exceeds other robots in development for the military, Allen says. The BEAR is designed to be controlled remotely by a single person and can also do things autonomously like pick up a box and move it to a specific location.
BEAR Robot image
“The ways that a BEAR can be used are nearly endless—and our team of engineers from top universities continually push these limits,” Deborah Theobald, CEO of Vecna, said in an e-mail. “Needless to say, we’re very excited about the BEAR project, and all of the robots that the team has invented.”

The BEAR is not expected to be ready for actual military use until 2015, and the robot is still very much a work in progress. For instance, Allen says, Vecna has designed a stabilization system that might allow future models of the robot to take steps on two legs and jump without falling. Work on the current treaded mobility system began in 2007 after the company spent several years developing the robot on a Segway platform. Allen explains that the two-wheeled Segway base could move the robot over open fields, but it was unable to climb over trees, navigate ditches, or go up stairs. In its current state, the tracked system can move over objects 3.5 feet high.

MIT-trained engineer Daniel Theobald, who co-founded Vecna in 1998, invented the BEAR and began developing the robot more than five years ago. The project has been funded with between $3 million and $4 million in federal grants, Allen says. Vecna now has some 110 employees located primarily at offices in Cambridge and Greenbelt, MD. Theobald, president and chief technology officer of Vecna, and CEO Debra Theobald are husband and wife.

Robotics is a growing business at Vecna, which is also developing systems to detect biological and chemical threats, as well as software and hardware to automate hospital check-ins, among other technologies. Over the past year, Vecna has more than doubled the size of its robotics team to 13 people. Most notably, the firm last year hired robotics designer Chi Won, a former employee at Burlington, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) and one of the inventors of that company’s well-known Roomba vacuum robot and its PacBot robot for military and industrial uses, according to Vecna. The beefed up robotics group is also developing a companion robot for the BEAR called Porter (named after the T station in Cambridge)—Allen compared the BEAR and Porter combination to bipedal Star Wars robot C-3PO and his sidekick R2-D2. But unlike R2-D2, which had three wheels, Porter moves around on four wheels and may be used to carry large military radios and munitions, he says.

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