It can go where no human can or would, gathering reconnaissance data in war zones and venturing into poisonous spaces, sending video and data back to its base wirelessly. We’re talking about a robotic snake here.
Developed by Sarcos Robotics, the Guardian S is expected to launch later this year and its makers say potential missions for the tiny bots include bomb disposal, firefighting, military intelligence gathering, and hazardous material emergencies.
“Anytime we need data from a location that is dangerous for humans, or where it is difficult for humans to access, the Guardian S is a candidate to gather the data,” says Ben Wolff, chairman and CEO of Sarcos, which in September received funding from GE Ventures, among investors.
One such scenario that might be deadly for humans: Collecting data from inside a structure where IEDs are hidden, like an apartment-turned-IED factory, as a Sarcos video illustrates.
With a dramatic piano pinging in the background, a man’s voice lays out the scenario: “A small building has been identified as a location where improvised explosive devices are being assembled. The mission is to perform a detailed and stealthy reconnaissance of the building.”
There are civilian uses as well, though. A little more than four feet long and weighing ten pounds, it can crawl inside a petroleum tank and use its camera, microphone, and infrared sensors to relay information back to the repair crew, who are, thankfully, not inside a petroleum tank.
None of this progress came quickly or easily, Wolff tells Inverse.
“Many prototypes, millions of dollars, and a little more than ten years later, we are close to being to releasing a next generation version of the robot that is significantly more capable and affordable than anything we have produced to date,” he says.
Sarcos was founded in the 1980s as a spinoff from the University of Utah. In addition to GE, the company has other big names backing it, including the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Other investors include Caterpillar and Microsoft.
The company is also working on giant robots that can lift large amounts of weight and move around factories. The Guardian GT is a massive arm that mounts onto a moving platform and can lift up to 1,000 pounds.
The team is also working on an exoskeleton — see a human wearing one work a boxing speed bag above — to enhance workers’ strengths by giving them the capacity to lift 200 pounds repeatedly.
But it’s the Guardian S, with its unique ability to fit into smaller gaps, that stands out.
“The concept originated with the need for a search-and-rescue robot, initially focused on efforts to locate workers trapped in mining accidents, and to be able to relay vital information about the trapped workers’ condition to the surface,” Wolff says.
Robots are typically depicted in pop culture as towering humanoids — see K-2SO in Star Wars: Rogue One — but miniature robots can play a vital role in everyday life. Last year, scientists at Stanford University used six tiny robots weighing 17 grams each to pull an entire car.
Another team from MIT and Stanford have shown how tiny robots could crawl over a user’s body and collaborate to create modular wearable devices. Sure, they’re not as imposing as Terminator-style bipedal machines, but they’re still very impressive.
In the future, the team wants to equip their creations with machine-learning algorithms, so they can learn how to complete tasks by being taught in a similar fashion to humans. For example, a human can teach a robot how to climb a set of stairs so they can move around a factory. So, robot snakes today, mechanical workforces tomorrow?