Smart, fast little robots could help military deploy battlefield wireless nets

The military continues its drive to use wireless technology to develop bleeding edge robot systems to help it fight wars.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently announced a program to build wireless, mobile bots - known as LANdroids - that soldiers can spread over a battlefield that, once deployed, would then form a wireless mesh network capable of voice/data transmissions.

LANdroid attack!

Once dropped, the bots, which are to weigh less than 2 lbs and be able to crawl around, self-configure and form a mesh network.

In a mesh, wireless devices connect to a nearby node, which passes the packets to one or more companion nodes. Algorithms are used to find a route for optimal performance and avoid downed nodes or interference.

Nodes in a mesh don't need cabled network connections, so deployments are relatively simple, fast, and inexpensive, compared with using convention WLAN access points. In a battlefield situation they would be ideal for setting up and tearing down networks, experts say.

As the battlefield situation changes, the nodes will adapt the network, such as self-healing if nodes are destroyed by the enemy. Being able to crawl, the LANdroids will enable effective communications in crowded, hard to reach locales - such as city streets and urban battle zones.

DARPA says the LANdroids robots will consist of a radio, robotic platform, battery, and small processor, will be expendable. Solders' must be able to drop and go - benefiting from the infrastructure while it is in place but not being required to move back into harm's way to retrieve the robots.

LANdroids aren't the first news of such devices this year. Cisco in March said it has developed a set of small smart robots, which can act as wireless communications relays, that sense when a mobile user is moving out of service range, and can follow the user to maintain connectivity. According to Cisco the robots can follow a user almost anywhere to maintain connectivity. Published reports said the robots were part of Cisco's "Information on the move" initiative - a wide-ranging plan to secure all things wireless. Whether or not the systems has an enterprise application, it is of interest to the military and initiatives such as the Army's Future Combat Systems, which uses a variety of advanced systems to achieve battleground superiority. A wireless robot such as this could play a part in the communications of those systems, experts say.

These sorts of smart robots have been gaining much attention lately. The University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute recently showed off Superbots, robots are made up of identical modular units that plug into one another to create robots that can stand, crawl, wiggle and roll.

The robots are being developed mainly to carry out multiple complex tasks, such as assembly, inspection, maintenance, habitat construction, surface landing, and exploration in space and on planet surfaces. Perhaps their paramount feature is flexibility: The different modules can be connected to let a robot handle a variety of tasks, rather than have that robot dedicated to a single task.

The traditional approach of building separate robots for separate tasks is no longer adequate for affordable space exploration, researchers said. DARPA is also working on a project called Knowledge Based Networking that would build a a network that would be able to configure itself, intelligently cache and route data, and allow for fast and reliable sharing of data, all while maintaining military-grade security.

Academic concepts such as artificial intelligence and Tim Berners-Lee's "Semantic Web," combined with technologies such as the Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET), cognitive radio, and peer-to-peer networking, would provide the nuts and bolts of such a network. Although the project is intended for soldiers in the field, the resulting advances could trickle down to end users.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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