The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is developing a backpack-portable, four-legged robot to conduct surveillance for ground troops on terrain that is too difficult for wheeled or tracked systems to navigate.

NRL’s Meso-scale Robotic Locomotion Initiative (MeRLIn), which displayed prototypes of its quadruped at the Pentagon March 15, plans to begin testing its robot in a lab later this year. The “Butch” version will be tethered to provide power and command and control. An upcoming variant, “Scout,” will be untethered.

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory's Meso-scale Robotic Locomotion Initiative (MeRLIn) is developing a small, four-legged robot. (Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)
The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Meso-scale Robotic Locomotion Initiative (MeRLIn) is developing a small, four-legged robot. (Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)

The program is investigating the “art of the possible” and hopes to eventually transition its technology to industry or warfare centers for further development, said Mike Osborne, MeRLIn’s program manager.

NRL envisions that such a robot could ultimately be deployed from a backpack, run about 10 miles per hour or as fast as an in-shape man, and jump over obstacles, such as fallen trees. But turning the concept into a deployable system will not be easy.

“Imagine it running through the woods,” NRL principal investigator Glen Henshaw said. “It needs to very quickly recognize where all the obstacles are and understand which of those obstacles it can actually jump on. If it’s a rock, it can jump on the rock and over it, but if it’s a bush, it can’t. So it has to figure out which ones it needs to avoid, which ones it can go over and which ones it can go through. And it also needs to identify friend or foe.”

Besides surveillance, potential missions include ammunition delivery and disposal of makeshift bombs and unexploded ordnance. A sister program is looking at what the robot’s sensor and processing capabilities should be.

“We can buy cameras,” Henshaw said. “The difficult part is: How do you develop the algorithms that take the input from those cameras and recognize what they need to recognize in a factor that I can fit on a robot of this size?”

While inspired by Boston Dynamics, a Google [GOOG] subsidiary whose inventions include Big Dog, a 240-pound, cargo-carrying quadruped, MeRLIn is roughly the size of a 20-pound mutt. But Henshaw would eventually like to develop an even tinier version that resembles a squirrel and climbs trees.

“That’s the thing I dream about at night,” Henshaw said. “Making things smaller and smaller turns out to be the engineering challenge.”