By Alex Knapp, Forbes
HDT Robotics is bringing something new to the battlefield – robotic equipment that’s both modular and capable of humanlike dexterity.
HDT Robotics is the newest division of HDT Global, an Ohio company that provides products to the U.S. and allied militaries, governments, and commercial customers. The division spun off last January, although the group itself has been working within HDT for over three years. Currently, the signature product of the HDT Robotics line right now is the MK 1 Robotic Arm, which is used for explosive disposal and other military applications. Robotic arms aren’t unique, of course, but what makes the MK 1 an interesting product is the history of its development and its modular approach to hardware.
From Prosthetics To Robotics
The Mk 1 actually began life in the world of prosthetics. HDT had teamed up with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins on a DARPA sponsored project to improve prosthetics for combat veterans. Johns Hopkins focused on the interface – how the brain could communicate with the prosthetic. HDT focused on achieving a light prosthetic that approached the real capabilities of a human arm.
“This effort gave us a big leg up in robotics capability,” said Dr. Tom van Doren, the COO of HDT Robotics. “Now we’re spinning the tech out, and the result is compact, lightweight, high strength robotic systems for manipulators. The design lets us combine human dexterity plus reasonable pricing.”
What’s the result of all that focus on dexterity in a robotic arm? Well – see for yourself.
For the military, the initial applications for the robot are pretty obvious – disarming bombs, getting IEDs out of the way – anything that involves putting a person in harm’s way. The dexterity of the robot makes it a good candidate to help save the lives of soldiers.
In civilian life, the fact that the robots are compact and lightweight make them ideal for manufacturing applications where you can’t use robots now, because the robots are too heavy or dangerous to use in areas where people are working. By contrast, says Van Doren, the Mk 1 can be safely used in workspaces with humans.
A Modular Approach
If you delve into a lot of military history, or have played the Civilization games, you know that one of the major advances in military technology were weapons created with interchangeable parts. Once upon a time, guns were unique – made by hand by a gunsmith. If something went wrong with the weapon, it either had to be sent back for expert repair or scrapped. But once guns were made with interchangeable parts to spec, they were much easier to repair by anyone with a little bit of training.
It’s this concept that strikes me when it comes to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Mk 1 – it’s built with modular, lightweight parts. This was a necessary part of the application in developing the prosthetics that preceded it. Since every amputation is different, and every person had different needs, it made more sense to develop a framework to build from.
“Different people wanted different applications,” said Van Doren. “So we developed different combinations of modules to allow the patients to pick the ones that made the most sense for them. Then we carried that over into the military application to allow systems to be reconfigured quickly and easily.”
The thing that impressed me the most about the modules is that each one is self-contained. Each module is watertight, has its own motor, motor controller, sensors, and its own computer for closed loop control.
“Basically,” Van Doren said. “Each module is a self-contained robot.”
Earlier this month, HDT Robotics took another step in improving the design of their robotics with their acquisition of Kinea Design, LLC. Kinea specializes in advanced medical robotics applications and user interface/control capabilities, including touch-sensitive control and haptics. They also bring experience in rehabilitation robotics, robot assisted surgery and other similar applications. Kinea was also on the team with Johns Hopkins working on prosthetics for DARPA.
“We at HDT Robotics are very pleased to have Kinea join our team, and look forward to our continued success in both prosthetics and robotics technology development,” said Van Doren.
The next step for HDT is, logically enough, the Mk 2 robot. This will feature still more ruggedization for more outdoor applications. They also plan on adding more autonomous capabilities to the robot – which, like most battlefield robots right now, is remote controlled. They also plan on building the capability to have two arms on a single robot.
One thing that the company isn’t worried about? Military budget cuts. In fact, they hope to capitalize from the failure of the Supercommittee and the likelihood of cuts to the Defense budget. “HDT Global has always engineered products that support expeditionary defense initiatives, creating lightweight, compact and efficient solutions,” said VP of Business Development Mike Stolarz. “Our energy efficiency products meet the logistics challenges of operating in austere and remote environments. The cost in lives and injuries is far greater than any monetary amount and our priority has always been reducing the logistics tail through that optic. With our increasing budget constraints, HDT Global’s products are well placed and already contribute to Defense cost initiatives.”
Time will tell whether this optimism is justified. But even if budget cuts force the military to not pursue this technology, it seems to me that the combination of modularity and dexterity makes the Mk 1 ideal for civilian applications. I’m looking forward to checking out their next model.