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The Army is using animals as blueprints to design the drones of the future

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WASHINGTON (Circa) — When it comes to designing the next generation of drones, U.S. Army researchers are drawing inspiration from what works in the animal kingdom.

Whether it is a dog's leg or a squid's tentacle, the researchers hope that these simple examples from nature will one day let drones and robots take over some of the more dangerous and physically taxing jobs from soldiers. Based at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the Army researchers have designed some prototypes based on natural design.

"Nature provides basically a risk reduction method so that when we are designing new systems, we can look to nature and see that that already works," Army Research Lab research specialist Geoffrey Slipher told Circa in an interview.

U.S. forces are increasingly incorporating drones and other robots into their day-to-day activities, whether it is a massive Reaper drone flying miles above the ground, or something smaller that can be used for quick reconnaissance and carried in a backpack. The problem is that many of them are limited in what they can do, an issue that Slipher and his fellow researchers at the Army Research Lab want their biology-based designs to fix.

One of those designs mimics the suction cups seen on the tentacles of cephalopods, like squids and octopuses. The researchers want to create a similar suction capability for the drones in common use today, with the goal of giving them the ability to pick up objects and land on a wider variety of surfaces. The prototype demonstrated to Circa was able to lift everything from a round softball to a rectangular block. The ultimate goal is to allow drones to interact with objects for soldiers, particularly dangerous ones, like improvised explosive devices.

"If the soldier finds something that is inherently dangerous, then maybe we want the drone to retrieve it and take it to some place where it can be disposed of," said Dr. Chad Kessens, a robotic manipulation engineer with ARL.

Most drones today use simple gear to land, limiting where they can touch down. A drone outfitted with the prototype suction cups can effectively "perch" on a variety of small and unorthodox surfaces from multiple angles, according to Kessenss. Saving energy is particularly important for drones, considering many drones are limited in their effectiveness due to a very short flight time. The ability to "perch" could drastically cut down energy use and increase utility.

Ground-based robots are also a focus, so the research team is drawing inspiration from man's best friend. Dogs and other four-legged mammals are adept at navigating a variety of terrain at high-speeds thanks to the design of their legs. That design has been mimicked in a robot known as the Minotaur, a four-legged robot roughly the size of your average household dog. The ultimate goal is to create a robot or drone that can act as a scout for troops in the field.

"We actually want to take the mission and have a robot be able to extend beyond where the soldier is, before the soldier gets there," said Jason Pusey, a mechanical engineer with the lab.

Leg design is the fundamental factor when it comes to maximizing the mobility of the Minotaur. Pusey and his colleagues study the gait of dogs and other similar mammals in order to help it reach its potential. Currently, the Minotaur is the second-fastest robot of its kind, but Pusey's ultimate ambitions for the platform go much farther.

"Our ultimate goal would be like a cheetah or greyhound as an ultimate performance platform," he said.

Both the flying drone and robot dog designs are in a very early phase. The researchers say it could be decades before the technology is deployed on the field, but Slipher said it's the soldiers who aren't even enlisted yet who are the focus of the lab's research.

"We never want to have a situation where our soldiers are entering a fair fight," he said. "We always want to give them as much advantage as possible."

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