Image: Browning
Carnegie Mellon University's Brett Browning puts a modified Segway through its paces playing soccer. The Pentagon wants the self-balancing scooters to be programmed to travel on their own.
updated 12/1/2003 7:53:06 AM ET 2003-12-01T12:53:06

It’s called the Segway Human Transporter, but the Pentagon is drafting the two-wheeled scooter as part of a plan to develop battlefield robots that think on their own and communicate with troops.

THE PROGRAM is still in the research phase, so the self-balancing scooters aren’t expected to report to boot camp anytime soon.

So far, university researchers armed with Pentagon funding have programmed Segway robots that can open doors, avoid obstacles, and chase soccer balls — all without human control.

Researchers say potential applications for the robots include performing search missions on the battlefield, transporting injured soldiers to safety, or following humans around while hauling their gear.

Dean Kamen, the Segway’s inventor, told The Associated Press he had no qualms about enlisting his brainchild into the military.

“You build a car and it can either be used as an ambulance, or it can drive your troops around,” he said. “My personal reason for liking (this program) is we would love to get more Segways at universities. The more we have our technology among the tech world, particularly the young geeks, it could only help us.”

Any useful applications developed by universities could help kick-start badly needed sales for the fledgling scooter company.

BIG HOPES, MODEST SALES

When the scooters were unveiled with great fanfare in 2001, Kamen’s supporters predicted millions would be sold, transforming urban transportation. But in September, when company issued a voluntary recall to fix a problem that caused riders to fall off when the batteries run low, it was disclosed that only 6,000 Segways had been sold.

Since the Segways retail for $3,995 and $4,495, depending on the model, new sales to the government or any other big customer could “help lower the price and let more people afford it,” said John Morrell, chief development engineer for privately held Segway LLC.

So far, the military program involves 15 Segways, which were delivered to university and government research labs over the last few months. The project is funded as part of a program in which the Pentagon is spending $26 million this year to develop software for autonomous systems.

Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said the idea is to let researchers concentrate on what the agency calls Mobile Autonomous Robot Software, rather than the mode of transportation. The Segway, which uses gyroscopes to balance itself, provides a common platform on which researchers can swap open-source programs.

“One of the focuses of this program is to develop software that would allow the robotic system to learn, so it can better perceive its outside environment,” Walker said.

‘PART OF THE SAME TASK’

The Segway can make much tighter turns than four-wheeled robotic vehicles currently used in the military and by researchers, and its high center of gravity means cameras and sensors can be placed several feet above the ground — a height more suitable for interacting with humans.

The scooters were modified by software engineers at Segway so they could be controlled by laptop computers. The researchers then loaded them up with cameras, sensors, communications gear and other gadgets.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology built a Segway robot that can navigate hallways and open doors.

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Segways are being used as part of a lab’s ongoing efforts to build robots that can play soccer with humans. So far, the robot can chase an orange soccer ball and kick it. The next goal is to teach the robot the rules of the game and get it to communicate with human players.

“They will come together not as a master-slave relationship, with the human telling the robot what to do,” , said computer science professor Manuela Veloso. “The human and robot will be part of the same task.”

University of Southern California researchers are working on ways to get the Segway to act as a “mule” that follows humans around, carrying their gear. The robotic Segway hauls as much as 100 pounds.

Another USC project involves controlling the way the Segway pitches and bounces over rough terrain so it can carry sensitive cargo, perhaps an injured human, according to lead researcher Gaurav Sukhatme.

A University of Pennsylvania lab is getting a robot-controlled Segway to communicate with an autonomous robotic blimp and small, truck-like vehicles so they can work as a team to find a designated object in a certain geographic area. The robots would navigate and communicate with each other autonomously, but a human would oversee the whole network.

“The human operator can basically interrogate the robots,” said Jim Keller, a project manager. “If a robot has seen something it thinks is interesting, it will send an alert back. The human operator will get more images by bringing in other robots to look at the same location from whatever their perspective is.”

The researchers tried the robots out at Fort Benning in Georgia a few months ago. But mostly they’ve been testing them out at the university’s football stadium.

The athletes who congregate there “roll their eyes when they see us coming,” Keller said.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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