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Army's 'Crusher' gets $14 million makeover

Army funds next step for the unmanned vehicle.

Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University will upgrade its 6.5-ton robot mobile, the "Crusher," by adding advanced suspension and hybrid-electric innards as part of a $14.4 million Army grant meant to push the envelope for unmanned ground vehicles.

The project, a result of more than two decades of robotics research by the university's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), will demonstrate how advanced vehicle and navigation technology can solve transportation challenges like those encountered by supply convoys in Iraq, according to the university (PDF).

Onboard sensors and a program called PerceptOR allow the vehicle to perceive and autonomously navigate in complex, off-road environments by fusing geometric and color sensors, GPS, odometry, and other data. It can also integrate a UAV, or "Flying Eye," that floats ahead of ground vehicles "to detect holes and other hazards."

"We're delighted that NREC will play a key role in showing how advanced autonomous vehicles work in Future Combat Systems settings," NREC Director John Bares said in the press release. He predicts the Crusher will be used in convoy roles at first, then tactical ones. "In 5 to 10 years, we should see robots working alongside our troops to protect them and help with tasks in the field."

This UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) builds on its DARPA-funded predecessor, the Spinner (PDF). Both capitalize on the absence of human crews, which means larger payloads of up to 8,000 pounds. It's powered by electric motors embedded in each of the vehicle's wheels that get their juice from a hybrid-turbo diesel generator charged by lithium-ion battery. Top speed is said to be 26 miles per hour.

The aluminum and titanium hull rides on state-of-the-art suspension and is protected by a steel skid plate, all of which allows it to move smoothly over large ditches, man-made barriers, piles of boulders, stumps, and other vehicles.