The military’s tried nearly everything to stop insurgent bombs. It’s tried jamming their detonation signals. It’s tried scouring roads for them with metal detectors like beach bums searching for treasure. And it’s tried — lots of times — to put robots in the way of the boom. No dice: the bombs keep proliferating, largely because of how cheap they are to construct.
So it was only a matter of time, perhaps, before someone thought to put KITT on the job.
The Army’s latest scheme to stop homemade bombs is pretty much inspired by Knight Rider. A California company called 5D Robotics recently won a contract of unspecified amount to develop an interface with an “intelligent” unmanned car that will “effectively perform improvised explosive device defeat (IEDD) tasks remotely.”
Sure, this “mid-sized unmanned ground vehicle” won’t really be David Hasselhoff’s robotic pal. “We’re not making KITT,” 5D chief David Bruemmer, a good sport, clarifies for Danger Room. “I don’t think anyone that we’re talking to in the military is looking for a highly cognitive intelligence.” Details, details.
But if it works well, then (kind of like the Knight Rider car) 5D’s robot won’t be relying on its human operator very much. 5D’s writ requires it to outfit its car with “perception and hazard sensors, manipulator(s), and operator control unit(s)” that can detect, remotely, the signatures of different kinds of improvised explosive devices. The idea is to “emulat[e] the best heuristics of human sensor and neutralizer manipulation,” 5D’s contract announces, so the car knows when to veer out of the way of a bomb and when to blow it up, all while “minimizing operator attention demands.”
In other words, KITT will know what to do with a bomb without Hoff mussing his perm over it.
The military has used lots of robots to assist with explosive ordnance disposal, from the Talon – a bomb disposal system based around treads, a camera and a creepy-looking arm — to the WALL-E-like Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle. And there’s no shortage of sensors for detecting the different kinds of IED signatures out there, from the ammonium nitrate sniffers of Project Ursus to jammers that hunt down bomb detonation frequencies to old-fashioned metal detectors.
But a bomb-hunting car? Not even close. First, the military can’t even come up with a bomb sensor as good as a dog’s nose. And the larger the robot — or any vehicle, for that matter — the more likely it is to get mired in Afghanistan’s steep, craggy, unpaved terrain.
And if it needs to be said, giving a bomb-hunting car artificial intelligence is a step so far unimagined. The company claims that its “5D Behavior EngineTM” provides exactly that: “intelligent instantaneous reactive responses to local environmental, sensor, and other data.” 5D brags that its A.I. is “inspired by biological systems where skill is ingrained through immediate interaction with the real-world,” eschewing behavioral models or GPS location systems to make its approach “much more robust in the face of uncertainty.” And it promises to work “through remote rugged terrain” that’s vexed other bomb-fighting robots.
Um, OK, if it actually works. In that case, the ersatz KITT won’t just know where the bombs are, it’ll figure out when to dodge them, when to blow them up and when to call in backup. Bruemmer says the human operator will still have an interface with the robot car, but the details are TBD: perhaps it’ll be a specially designed piece of hardware, although he says, “We’re 100 percent doing the app model — we are working on a Droid interface.”
Bruemmer declined to tell Danger Room how much his contract is worth or when he’ll deliver a prototype.
5D doesn’t specify which robot vehicle qualifies as “mid sized.” But it’ll be way bigger than, say, a 125-pound Talon. Bruemmer tells Danger Room that his meetings with the Army have him experimenting with a real, honest-to-goodness car: “We’re working with a 4,500-pound vehicle that’s very promising,” is all he’ll say about it. (Good luck keeping that thing out of the mire of Afghanistan’s unpaved roads.)
But there isn’t really a single robotic vehicle 5D envisions. Bruemmer prefers a “plug and play” suite of sensors and AI so that different vehicles could be tricked out into intelligent bomb hunters. “We’re not looking to focus only on one robot,” Bruemmer says. “Depending on the mission, there’ll be a need for a family of robots.”
Hear that, KITT? There’s hope for you yet.