Pennsylvania’s RE2 is primarily known for its work on robotic arms and other manipulation technologies, although it recent years it has also branched out into the medical services market.

Now it is bringing those two aspects of its work together in the form of Lifeline, an arm-based robotic field technology that would allow a medic to load a wounded soldier onto an unmanned ground vehicle to get them out of harm’s way.

Medics who are trying to assist injured troops in the field have a problem. They may not be able to assist the wounded person on their own – meaning other soldiers have to shift their attention away from protection or combat duty to help.

Lifeline would allow the medic to load the injured soldier onto a vehicle without further assistance, and then treat the patient while moving him or her to a safer location.

“It’s really looking at what manipulation technology can we leverage to make [an] appliqué kit” to attach to future army unmanned ground vehicles, says Jorgen Pederson, RE2 president and chief executive.

“It’s sort of serving as the brawn for the soldier,” he adds.

The US Army plans to procure medium-sized unmanned ground vehicles that can carry supplies and follow a squad autonomously, and the company says Lifeline would be a medical module for those vehicles.

RE2 hasn’t described exactly what Lifeline is, but it says it will be similar to a robotic arm and will be able to attach to a vehicle in under 10min. Funding for the work came from the US Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center and the Army Small Business Innovation Research Office.

The first phase of the program is under way now, with a downselect in the second phase expected by the end of the year.

“We don’t know what the final thing is going to look like,” Pedersen says. “It will be some type of manipulation device – whether it’s an arm or a crane type of technology. We’re finalising the conceptual design right now.”

Dr Patrick Rowe, vice-president of research and development for RE2, says: “Our engineering staff are utilising their combined expertise in autonomy, unmanned systems engineering and manipulation to create a robotic system that provides medics with the assistive technology to perform their duties more effectively.”

RE2 has built more than 300 robotic arms that are used by US military bomb disposal squads. It has also worked on arms for other applications, including medical uses.

It is working on a robotic arm for an electric wheelchair under a contract from the National Institutes of Health – an agency of the US Department of Health – using licensed technology from the University of Pittsburgh.

The arm would provide patient assistance, by helping move a patient from a wheelchair to a bed or toilet, for example.

“We are focusing on the commercialisation of that technology,” Pedersen says. “We have an exclusive license for this technology. We are doing designs for manufacturability… in hopes of it becoming a product in two to three years.”

There may be some commonality between the wheelchair arm and Lifeline, although there are numerous differences between the two systems.

“There will be some overlap,” Pedersen says. “Both devices are [for] lifting and assisting patients. One’s just doing it from a wheelchair, and one’s doing it from an unmanned ground vehicle.”

One big difference is that the wheelchair user will be otherwise healthy and can move on their own to some extent – whereas the soldier will be injured and likely to be immobile.

“[Wheelchair users] are not injured like [soldiers] would be out on the battlefield,” Pedersen says. “You don’t need as large a device because the individual is probably assisting in the transfer.”

RE2 is now working on the second phase of a program –the Highly Dexterous Manipulation system (HDMS) – which uses two arms that mimic the movements of two smaller scale-model arms, called the Imitative Controller.

“How you move the puppet arm is exactly how the arms work. This is the most intuitive way to control highly dexterous arms,” Pedersen says. “However you move this little scaled model is exactly what the real arms do, so it removes all the guesswork.”

After just a few minutes “people can be highly proficient at a complicated task” using the arms, he says. The company’s website has a video of the arms being used to make balloon animals.

The system could be used on upcoming versions of advanced unmanned ground vehicles for dealing with improvised explosive devices and other uses.

“It’s similar to some other two-arm systems, but on this one we really focused in on affordability – not what can be done, but what can be done with limited money,” Pedersen says. “We are shooting for relatively affordable solutions. Our goal is to try to hit 85% of the state-of-the-art at a third of the cost, and I think we’re closer to 90% at a third of the cost.”

Pedersen says RE2 is similar to German chemicals giant BASF, which for years has said that it does not make the products consumers use, it simply makes them better.

“We don’t make the robots you use. We make the robots you use better,” Pedersen says. “We’re providing payloads and software and controllers to enhance other people’s robots. Mobile manipulation is still what we’re most known for. That’s still our sweet spot.”

Source: Flight Daily News