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Mil Tech — Researchers Create Firefighting Humanoid Robot

Nov 03 2015

Published by under Technology

Researchers at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Biorobotics Program, Virginia Tech University, and the University of Pennsylvania have built a humanoid robot the size of an adult that was able to fight a live fire aboard a U.S. Navy ship.
Named the shipboard autonomous firefighting robot (SAFFiR), the robotic firefighter is made out of aluminum, weighs 165 pounds, and stands 5 feet 10 inches tall.
Tom McKenna, Ph.D, program officer for the ONR Biorobotics Program, says that SAFFiR uses three types of sensors to navigate the spaces of a ship and locate the source of a fire.
“SAFFiR has a digital camera, a thermal imaging unit to see through the smoke and to detect heat, and a scanning radar to allow for accurate mapping,” McKenna says. “The robot has 33 degrees freedom of movement [and] can walk, bend its legs, swivel its head, and hold a hose and operate it with its hands.
ONR demonstrated the SAFFiR unit recently aboard the USS Shadwell, a U.S. Navy experimental facility that has a fire control laboratory where suppression technologies can be demonstrated on live fires.
During the demonstration, SAFFiR carried a one-inch hose line and nozzle to suppress the fire with a concentration of water and foam. The robot also can carry a backpack fire suppression unit and, as its abilities are developed, toss fire suppression grenades when necessary, McKenna points out.
“SAFFiR has not been fire-hardened yet,” McKenna notes. “The robot was standing at the door of the compartment when it was suppressing the fire on USS Shadwell. But all the personal protection equipment that human firefighters use to fight fires can be applied to the robot too.”
McKenna points out  SAFFiR is still a research project that has to meet certain benchmarks to make it a viable technology.
“We have to meet Technical Readiness Levels,” he says. “We will continue to make the robot more robust in locomotion to take into account the rocking of a ship and give it the ability to use hand holds. We also will pursue a better human-robot interface and focus a bit more on better manipulators.”

About the author: Alan M. Petrillo is a Tucson, Ariz., journalist who writes for national and regional magazines and newspapers. He’s the author of several books on historical military firearms; and two historical mysteries, Full Moon, and his latest novel, Asylum Lane, all available at

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Mil Tech — U.S. Army Engineers Adapt Technology to Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems

Oct 05 2015

Published by under Technology

The U.S. Army’s engineers the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., are continuing research into how to adapt current technology to counter the threat to soldiers from unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
“The key to a system of protection is command guidance,” says Manfredi Luciano, ARDEC project officer for the Extended Area of Protection and Survivability system.
What began as a system to develop technology that could counter rocket, artillery, and mortar fire, has expanded into a system that looks at the threat that UAVs, or drones, could pose to soldiers in the field, Luciano says.
Using a medium caliber 50-mm gun that could fire out about 3 kilometers, Luciano and his team put together a demonstration that tracked a threat, launched an interceptor, maneuvered toward the threat, and command-detonated the interceptor to disable or destroy the threat.
The team recently shot down a class 2 UAS at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona using command guidance and detonation of a 21-inch-long warhead weighing about 6.2 pounds.
“We were successful in twice shooting down a UAS,” Luciano points out. “Both times we intercepted the UAS at 1,500 meters range.”
Luciano says the interception round has a transceiver that talks back and forth with a ground station computer that figures out the maneuvers the round must make and its detonation time.
“The system’s radar can track to sub-meter accuracy,” Luciano says. “It computes the maneuver and detonation point for intercept and uplinks the command to the warhead through a radio frequency.”
The firing platform is based on the Bushmaster 3 but uses a longer breech and the same barrel.
“From here, the Army has to come up with a requirement for us to pursue,” Luciano says, “as well as an optimum range and caliber for the weapon. If the Army wants a smaller caliber than 50-mm, we would have to shrink some components on board the cartridge and warhead.”
Luciano notes  the project interested him because it had several objectives.
“The most notable was being able to maneuver a single bullet to where you want it to go,” he says. “We expect to fund more technology developments in the command guidance area and then miniaturize the round as needed. We also are considering applying this to artillery, so we could get larger in addition to smaller. The drone threat is huge, and command guidance could be one answer to that threat, depending on the range and the type of solution needed.”

About the author: Alan M. Petrillo is a Tucson, Ariz., journalist who writes for national and regional magazines and newspapers. He’s the author of several books on historical military firearms; and two historical mysteries, Full Moon, and his latest novel, Asylum Lane, all available at

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Mil Tech—Excalibur Ib Projectile Offers Extended Range Precision

Sep 07 2015

Published by under Technology

Raytheon Co. and the U.S. Army successfully have fired two Excalibur Ib projectiles from a M109A2/A3 howitzer during tests at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz.

Courtesy Raytheon

Paul R. Daniels, the Raytheon business development lead for the Excalibur program, says his company has fielded the 155-mm projectile in support of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq because of a need to extend the range of artillery and to deliver very precise fire.

“The Ib is the third version of the Excalibur projectile,” Daniels points out. “As a former Army artillery officer, I’m astounded by its capability to fire out to 40 kilometers, the longest range-cannon fire ever fielded.”
During the recent tests at Yuma Proving Ground, the Excalibur Ib projectile was used in a M185 cannon with a M119A2 propelling charge. Both rounds tested guided precisely to their targets more than 20 kilometers away, Daniels says.

The M109A2/A3 is an early variant of the M109-series howitzer that is operated by armed forces around the world. Daniels says that based on the test results, those forces now are able to use the extended-range precision capability provided by Excalibur Ib.

While Daniels would not discuss the circular area probable for the projectile, he says, “We can talk about how much Excalibur Ib might miss by. It’s as accurate as the best GPS location and the average miss distance is 2 meters from a precisely located target.”

Excalibur 1b is a precision-guided, extended-range projectile that uses GPS guidance to provide accurate, first-round effect capability in any environment. It is 43 inches long and weighs 100 pounds. The projectile doesn’t travel in a ballistic path like a typical projectile, Daniels points out but rather flies a guided flight after reaching apogee.

Once Excalibur’s GPS signal is acquired, it deploys canards at apogee that project from the front of the round to guide its flight and induce added range, while fins on the back of the projectile stabilize the round.

“At the end of the flight, the round turns down sharply and approaches the target at a near vertical angle,” Daniels says. “That optimizes the lethality of the warhead and also reduces the risk of having effects where other things are hit other than the target.”

Daniels adds that with unguided rounds, they might fall short, left, right or over the target. But because of Excalibur’s precision, it can be deployed within 75 meters of friendly forces.

The Excalibur Ib can be fitted with three types of fuses – point detonating, point detonating delay (to allow it to penetrate concrete structures), and height burst, where it explodes above a target.

The Excalibur Ib projectile went into full rate production by Raytheon in June of last year, Daniels notes.

“The Army calls it a model program,” he says. “We’ve met the schedule and the weapon system gives fantastic performance in terms of all the requirements for accuracy and reliability.”

Daniels says that Raytheon is working on the Excalibur N5 for use in the U.S. Navy’s 5-inch gun (approximately 127-mm).

“The Navy has Mark 45 5-inch guns on all its destroyers and cruisers, which can fire a maximum of 13 nautical miles or approximately 20 kilometers,” Daniels says. “At 13 nautical miles it is a very inaccurate gun because its maximum effective range is eight or nine nautical miles.

If we introduce Excalibur in the 5-inch gun, it will be able to get out to 26 nautical miles or more, which would double the gun’s maximum range and more than triple its effective range, all with less than 2 meters miss area.”

Raytheon has invested internally in a program to conduct a live fire demonstration with the U.S. Navy of the 5-inch naval gun version of Excalibur at Yuma Proving Ground late in September.

About the author: Alan M. Petrillo is a Tucson, Ariz., journalist who writes for national and regional magazines and newspapers. He’s the author of several books on historical military firearms; and two historical mysteries, Full Moon, and his latest novel, Asylum Lane, all available at

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Mil Tech — Small Robotic Flying Device Mimics Jellyfish

Aug 06 2015

Published by under Technology

A researcher at New York University’s Courant Institute has developed a small flying robotic device that takes its motion from that which a jellyfish does to move itself through water.


Leif Ristroph, assistant professor of mathematics at Courant Institute at New York University, says the device was developed as part of his Applied Mathematics Laboratory’s continuing work on understanding unsteady aerodynamics and fluid structure interactions.

“We didn’t officially name our robot, though we call it a ‘flying jellyfish,’ ” Ristroph says. “Maybe ‘aerojelly’ would be a nice name.”

Ristroph says the flyer is an ornithopter, or flapping wing aircraft, about 4 inches in size, that fits in a person’s hand.

“The concept is to have a membrane or set of wings that close and open somewhat like a jellyfish closes and opens its bell,” he points out. “Our specific realization has four wings hinged from above and driven by a motor to collapse inward and then outward, squeezing air downward to generate an upward lift. It flaps these wings about 20 times each second in flight, so it appears as a blur to the eye.”

While the flying robot resembles a jellyfish’s action through water, its inspiration didn’t come from jellyfish but rather a set of experiments Ristroph and his researchers previously had done.

“These involved pyramid shapes that can hover when placed upright in a vertically oscillating airflow,” Ristroph says. “These earlier experiments involved an externally driven flow, provided by a loudspeaker. The idea behind our flyer was to have the relative motion between the wings and air driven by an on-board motor so that it can fly in open air.”

Thus far with the current version of the flying jellyfish, the researchers have not managed to get a battery on board. Its power is wired in through tiny copper wires connected to a direct current power supply, which allows the flyer to flit about in a one meter cubic volume, enough to study its flight dynamics and stability but not good enough for practical applications yet.

Ristroph notes the first prototype of the flying jellyfish is very simple.

“It does not carry anything other than the mechanical components needed for flight, like wings, transmission system, motor, and body frame,” he says. “One very nice thing we found is that the flyer does not need any sensors to keep upright during flight — it has so-called passive upright stability, which is a great convenience when we think about further miniaturization of such a design. No special stabilizing tails or other surfaces are needed, and no sensors and computers are needed either.”

Ristroph says he has received questions and comments from individuals associated with the U.S. Air Force but no officially-expressed military interest yet.

“We aren’t working with anyone right now, though we are filing a patent through New York University, which is interested in developing the flyer further,” he says. “There are some engineering hurdles — especially getting a battery on board — that we as physicists and mathematicians will have to rely on others to overcome.”

Ristroph hopes that the help of engineers will take his tethered prototype to the level of a free-flying, self-powered machine. In addition, he believes more study on what makes the flyer so self-stable is another interesting point to figure out.

“This is especially interesting, since we now know that the way insects fly is not passively stable, bur rather they rely on sensors and feedback control to keep upright,” he notes. It’s an exciting time for individuals involved in trying to build small-scale flying machines, especially unorthodox versions like those with flapping wings. Any one of their ideas might just be a significant advance.”

About the author: Alan M. Petrillo is a Tucson, Ariz., journalist who writes for national and regional magazines and newspapers. He’s the author of several books on historical military firearms; and two historical mysteries, Full Moon, and his latest novel, Asylum Lane, all available at

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Mil Tech — Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Swims Like a Fish

Jul 09 2015

Published by under Technology

The manner in which fish’s fins allow it to swim is the inspiration for the design of a unique underwater propulsion system being developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Arlington, Va.

WANDA, the Wrasse-inspired Agile Near-shore Deformable-Fin Automation, is a man-portable autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that uses two pairs of fish-like fins that allow it to conduct missions in littoral zones where low speed and high maneuverability are prized capabilities.

Jason Geder, aerospace engineer at the NRL’s Laboratories for Computational Physics and Fluid Dynamics, says WANDA was inspired by the pectoral fins of the reef fish, bird wrasse, and allowed NRL researchers to develop a vehicle with an actively controlled curvature robotic fin that provides scaled down AUVs with a low speed propulsion system.

“The actively controlled curvature fins allow the vehicle to maneuver more precisely than a propeller driven vehicle,” Geder points out. “Propeller systems have issues with dead zones and overshoot that WANDA does not.”

WANDA has two pairs of pectoral fins, two forward and two aft on the vehicle. Geder says WANDA’s uniqueness lies in the fact it actively controls the curvature of its fins by actuating individual rib bars within the fins, which allows it to swim through the water by an oscillating motion.

The current version of WANDA is 3-1/2 feet long with a nearly elliptical cross section that’s approximately 14 inches in width at its widest point and less than 10 inches at its highest point.

“The dry weight, depending on its payload, is approximately 25 pounds and can be picked up by a single person,” Geder says.

WANDA carries sensors on board for navigation, operation and maneuvering, relying on an inertial navigation system, angular rate gyros, accelerometers for measuring heading and the angle of the vehicle, a pressure sensor for measuring depth, and a GPS for fixing its location if it comes to the surface, Geder says.

Geder says NRL researchers have developed near-field pressure sensors that allow WANDA to detect current flows and static objects in the near field. “It’s like the lateral line sensors fish use to detect objects on their side and front,” he says. “The fish use a system of hair-like pressure sensing elements that allow them to sense changes in the flow field around their body. We are testing those kinds of sensors with WANDA for their navigational capabilities.”

WANDA’s modular construction allows it to be integrated for a number of different mission-specific payloads, Geder points out. “Besides the near-field sensors, we also are developing chemical sensors for detecting underwater chemical signatures in the environment, where they would detect a particular element and then use that information to navigate upstream to where it’s coming from,” he says. “If WANDA is close to the surface, it can communicate that information in real time by wireless data transfer and also store the data on board for later downloading.”

Geder says NRL has programmed a number of different maneuvers and missions into WANDA.

“These are closed loop maneuvers, where, for example, the vehicle would dive to a certain depth, do a certain pattern like a box or a lawnmower pattern, and then return to the surface to transfer the data,” Geder says. “It also has the capability for manual operation for testing purposes, where a user controls the vehicle.”

Geder says the next step in the development of WANDA is improving the vehicle’s robustness for field trials that will be conducted this summer in the Washington, D.C. area with a number of NRL collaborators.

About the author: Alan M. Petrillo is a Tucson, Ariz., journalist who writes for national and regional magazines and newspapers. He’s the author of several books on historical military firearms and two historical mysteries, Full Moon, and his latest novel, Asylum Lane, all available at

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