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John Deere goes olive-drab at Robotics Rodeo

The tractor maker merges jeep styling with high-tech gadgetry in its R-Gator, an unmanned vehicle for recon missions and pack-mule duties.

John Deere R-Gator
John Deere's R-Gator autonomous utility vehicle in the back country at Fort Hood, Texas. Mark Rutherford/CNET

FORT HOOD, Texas--John Deere, a household name in the Lone Star state, is hoping the brand will carry over into the market for military unmanned runabouts.

At the Robotics Rodeo taking place this week here at this massive Army post, the company is demonstrating its R-Gator standalone, autonomous mule, which is based on its M-Gator model already in the field. Applications include reconnaissance, patrol, hauling supplies (up to 1,400 lbs.), casualty evacuation, and the "marsupial" capability--namely the ferrying and remote deployment of smaller, specialized robots. (PDF)

Scott Estes gets ready to demonstrate John Deere's R-Gator at 2009 Robotics Rodeo. Mark Rutherford/CNET

The unit uses John Deere's NavCom technology, GPS, and an inertial navigation system to find its way around. Two laser range sensors detect obstacles up to 65 feet away in both tele-operation and autonomous mode.

The R model can navigate its way to a concealed location, turn its engine off, and then conduct surveillance until approached, recalled, or the batteries run out eight hours later, according to the Moline, Ill.-based company. John Deere staff was quick to point out that all the gear on this model is COTS (for "commercial off-the-shelf"), including the batteries.

The robo-cart can be operated via Windows-based laptop or vest-mounted control unit, along with a game controller, and that unit can display four video streams. It comes with mast-mounted pan/tilt/zoom-capable cameras and and front- and rear-mounted drive cameras. Power comes from a compact 18-horsepower, overhead-valve, 3-cylinder, liquid-cooled, 4-cycle diesel.

The Robotics Rodeo is sponsored by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and by the U.S. Army's III Corps, headquartered here. The event is billed as a demonstration of technology that could be of benefit to the Army's robotics programs, and specifically its quest for unmanned ground systems.