Robo-Forklift Keeps Humans Out of Harm's Way

Researchers in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are developing a safer, more efficient way to handle supplies in a war zone: a semi-autonomous lift truck that can be directed by remote away from the dangers of the site.

Currently, when supplies arrive at military outposts, people driving lift trucks unload the pallets and put them into storage, and later load them onto trucks to take the material to where it’s needed. These lift truck operators must often scramble for cover, slowing the work and putting them at risk.

When completed, the new robotic device will provide a safer way to handle pallet-loaded supplies of everything from truck tires to water containers and construction materials, says Matt Walter, a CSAIL postdoctoral researcher with a lead role in the project. The device is designed to operate outdoors on uneven terrain such as gravel or packed earth.

In Iraq, for example, Walters says workers have at times had “to abandon the forklift three or four times a day because they come under fire. A lot of the work could be automated, but it’s a very difficult task."

Research began with a small test platform rigged with lift truck tines and a variety of sensors and computers that was used for a series of indoor tests and is now continuing with a full-scale prototype being tested outdoors on the MIT campus.

In developing the robotic system, the CSAIL researchers have made extensive use of computer code developed for other projects, including the autonomous vehicle MIT entered in the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge auto race, in which unmanned cars navigated roads without human intervention, Teller says.

Among the tasks the robot must carry out automatically is avoiding unexpected obstacles, especially people who may be walking around in the area. That turned out to be less of a challenge than expected: "It is possible to detect moving people using laser range scanners," Walter says. "Things get much harder if people are trying to trick the system by hiding or standing very still," Teller notes.

The lift truck project has involved about 30 faculty, staff and students (including postdocs, PhD and MEng students, and UROPs) from MIT's CSAIL, LIDS, and Courses 2, 6 and 16, as well as from Lincoln Laboratory, Draper Laboratory and BAE Systems. It has been funded by the U.S. Army Logistics Innovation Agency.

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