The Marines Are Building Robotic War Balls

A model of one of GuardRobot's amphibious systems.


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A model of one of GuardRobot's amphibious systems.

The future of amphibious assault looks kind of like an explosive inner tube. It’s really a drone.

Establishing a beachhead on enemy-held turf is historically one of the most dangerous jobs in warfare, just ask Achilles. But the robotic age may make it slightly less so.

A research team from Stamford, Conn. has developed an amphibious drone that they are currently testing with the Marines. The GuardBot is a robot ball that swims over water at about 4 miles per hour and then rolls along the beach, at as much as a 30-degree incline and 20 miles per hour.

It uses a nine-axis stabilization, “pendulum motion” propulsion system, which moves the bot forward by shifting the center of gravity back and forth and a variety of steering algorithms.

It took creator Peter Muhlrad some seven years to develop, but now that it’s complete Muhlrad says it can be rapidly produced in various sizes. Company documents suggest it can be scaled down to units as small as 10 cm and as large as nine feet. The company is planning to develop a prototype that’s 6 feet in diameter.

Muhlrad’s company, GuardBot Inc. has a cooperative research development agreement, or CRADA, with the Navy. A CRADA is a legal framework that allows private companies or researchers to use government facilities, research and resources to build things that are mutually beneficial to both parties. The information that the researcher discovers is protected for up to five years. Under many CRADAs the researcher does not receive money from the government but has the right to commercialize what he or she produces. The government retains a use license.

Here’s the team presenting it at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia, in 2012. Watch it navigate the volleyball pit.

In January 2014, they tested it at the Naval Amphibious Base in Little Creek, Va., where the GuardBot successfully deployed from and returned to a naval craft.

Today, the machine is remotely operated over a 2-8 GHz datalink.

But Muhlrad and his team are working on new software that incorporates geographic information system data, or GIS, to allow for far greater autonomy. Just pick a spot on the map and the ball will get there.

“Depending on if we get funding, we could develop that in 8 to 10 months,” Muhlrad told Defense One.

Muhlrad designed the system primarily for surveillance and object inspection. It’s capable of 360 degree turns so its somewhat more maneuverable than other ground robots. In tests with Smith Detection’s raman laser spectroscope  in the payload (the two small transparent half-spheres on the side of the bot) it was able to detect explosive chemicals from about 2 inches away.

No, unlike a one-armed PackBot, it clearly won’t be disabling explosives. And it won’t replace special operations teams, but it could accompany them on dangerous missions. When Defense One asked if the GuardBot could carry explosives rather than detection or camera equipment, Muhlrad answered simply: “Yes.”

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