"I view these kinds of machines are more assisting the troops in the field and protecting them, and helping them many times with the unglamorous tasks, rather than replacing them," says Bares.
There are questions, like: What if Crusher breaks down mid-mission? Does the top speed of 25 miles an hour make it an easy target? And is it any better than a tank or humvee driven by a soldier?
"This vehicle can certainly go places a humvee can't go, and on the other end of the scale an m1 Abrams tank can go a lot of places but weighs 10 times the weight of this vehicle, so I think given its size and its weight, it does pretty well in terrain, and we're trying to make it a little bit better every day," says Bares.
He points out that Crusher is still only a prototype. "Our dream is to make a vehicle that would drive as good as a 14-year-old or something, not even a 16-year-old yet," he says. "So we have a ways to go."
Some question the risk of having robots perform tasks that typically require human intellect and problem-solving skills.
|image: Carnegie Mellon University/U.S. Government|
But Bares argues that "very qualified operators fall asleep, or they get tired. So in automated vehicles the hope is that we can improve safety in applications where we put them, but certainly there will always be risk, they are vehicles driven by lots of computers, lots of software, lots of sensors, and they are only as good as how we teach them and how they learn," says Bares. "Right now we have tractors that can drive in agricultural fields more accurately and in straighter lines than a human operator. So there's certain things that computers and intelligence can do very, very well, but there are other things where we have a long way to go yet."
With the project that created the first two Crushers costing $35 million, they're unlikely to be mass-produced anytime soon. But Bares hopes the technologies developed for the Crusher will also find their way into commercial applications.
"The ultimate goal is to try to advance off-road autonomy to make vehicles that are exceptionally smart and capable as they move off-road and be able to in the future apply that to all kinds of arenas, including commercial arenas, anti-terrorism, rescue response, military, agriculture, construction," says Bares.
The researchers are conducting field experiments of Crusher this summer, and plan to finish it in 2008, when army officials will work with the researchers to test the vehicle on simulated missions.
Recent innovations in Crusher's navigation technology was published in the August 2006 "Proceedings of Robotics: Science and System." More information on Crusher, as well as additional video, was in the May 15, 2006 edition of Sciam.com. Crusher was presented at a DARPA/U.S. Army Presentation of Crusher at Carnegie Mellon on April 28, 2006. Bares' research is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.