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MIT Develops Robot Forklifts For War Zones

Researchers are working on a robotic device that will help keep people safe by delivering goods in war zones.

MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are developing a semiautonomous forklift that can be controlled from a distance, the university reported Monday. The device will eliminate the need for people to drive forklifts to load and unload supplies at combat sites, where operators might need to run for cover.

Matt Walter, a CSAIL postdoctoral researcher with a lead role in the project, said that operators in Iraq sometimes come under fire and have to abandon forklift operations up to four times a day.

"A lot of the work could be automated," thus alleviating people's exposure to danger, "but it's a very difficult task," he told MIT News.

The forklift will be equipped with a video camera and is able to travel on rough terrain. It will undergo "training to learn" the layout of a site and move according to wireless signals from a tablet computer operated by a supervisor nearby or in a bunker, MIT News reported. The supervisor can provide instruction with a stylus or voice commands. Eventually, researchers hope to develop a system that allows the supervisor to control the forklift by just gesturing and speaking.

The forklift can also run in the traditional manner, with an operator on board, if necessary.

Researchers have tested the system indoors and they have begun a series of outdoor tests on campus. About 30 faculty, staff, and students are involved with the project, which is one of several MIT CSAIL efforts to develop situational awareness for machines. The U.S. Army Logistics Innovation Agency funded the project.