US gov't seeks builder for military robot

US government asks for shape-shifting robot proposals

Creative scientists have until next week to submit proposals for creating a shape-shifting military robot that can shrink and then reconfigure itself to normal height and shape.

The description of the robot, at a high level, is somewhat reminiscent of the villainous liquid-state cyborg of the sci-fi movie Terminator 2 -- except that this robot would be dispatched to save lives on the battlefield. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is accepting proposals for building the so-called Chemical Robot (ChemBot) from researchers until July 2.

According to the Department of Defense unit's request for proposals, potential developers should avoid using hard materials that can't "rapidly traverse arbitrary size/shape openings whose dimensions are much smaller than the robot itself and are not known a-priori."

The RFP suggests using technologies like gels, thickening fluids and shape memory materials that can return to an original shape after completing a mission. DARPA acknowledges that some technologies may still be in the research labs of submitters.

Ultimately, the agency said it hopes the ChemBot can provide "the ability to safely and covertly gain access to denied or hostile areas and perform useful tasks," and provide help to soldiers "over a broad spectrum of military operations."

DARPA describes ChemBot as a soft and flexible device that can squeeze through apertures and then reassemble to do its job. The agency is looking for the ChemBots to be capable of traveling distances, transforming in all three dimensions and carrying their own power source.

DARPA dictates that the ChemBot have tactile sensing capability and a backbone or skeleton that can also dissolve or morph shape, and be either autonomously or remotely controlled. Taking a cue from the animal kingdom, DARPA suggests that the ChemBot have elastic materials capable of twisting, crumpling or bending like an octopus or insect.

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Marc L. Songini

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