Yes, you read that right. Transformers are in our future– at least our proposed future. Looks like Carnegie Mellon University have secured a whopping grant to the tune of $1 Million to further develop the flying Lockheed Martin Transformer vehicle concept for DARPA, by adding autonomous capabilities. The point of this military vehicle isn’t just to fly, but to drive across difficult terrain, too… all of its own volition. A thinking machine; a robot not quite in disguise, helping keep soldiers safe.
And yes: they are really calling it the Transformer. Or, TX for short.
The Transformer, you’ll recall, is a proposed four-wheeled vehicle capable of off-road terrestrial travel as well as flight. DARPA is asking contractors for a vehicle with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities, a 250-nautical-mile range on a single tank of fuel, a seating capacity of four, and a payload capacity of at least 1,000 pounds. The idea is to give soldiers terrain independent mobility, allowing them to leap impassable terrain or to avoid terrestrial threats like ambushes or improvised explosive devices.
If, like me, you’re a NOVA addict, you might remember Carnegie Mellon’s entrant into the DARPA 2007 Urban Challenge, which won. The vehicle, like all the others in the contest, had to be completely autonomous. The Carnegie Mellon entrant — named the Boss — ended up winning the entire event, and since then, the university has also worked on autonomous submarines and helicopters.
DARPA seems to be doing a pretty good job of siphoning the talent of universities into military development, that’s for sure. (If you haven’t seen NOVA episode, you really ought to; last I checked it was on Netflix, too.)
But back to what Carnegie Mellon is doing with the Transformer. Because, as cool as a Transformer truck might be — even one that can fly — what really fascinates me is the software used to program the autonomous control. Sanjiv Singh, who is a professor of robotics at CMU, explains it best:
The TX is all about flexibility of movement and key to that concept is the idea that the vehicle could be operated by a soldier without pilot training. In practical terms, that means the vehicle will need to be able to fly itself, or to fly with only minimal input from the operator. And this means that the vehicle has to be continuously aware of its environment and be able to automatically react in response to what it perceives.
While there are many reasons that autonomous capabilities are important to the military, I can’t help but wonder what it’d be like to have one of these puppies in real life. Cue visions of around-the-world travel with a transforming, self-driving truck of awesome.
[Image: Transformer Prototype, Lockheed Martin — via PopSci]