An Actual Use for Bipedal Robots!

E-mail Melanie Martella

If you've been reading Sensors Weekly for a while, you'll know that I'm a fan of robots. Now a project is underway to create what are, essentially, walking crash test dummies to test chemical warfare protective gear.

According to the news release "Midwest Research Institute Lands Phase IIa of Army Contract for Development of Humanoid Robot to Test Warfighter Protection Equipment", Midwest Research Institute has the go-ahead on the second phase of the U.S. Army's Individual Protection Ensemble Mannequin System (IPEMS) project. Working in collaboration with several other research firms, the project aims to create a free-standing, self-balancing humanoid robot that can be used to test just how effective a given type of protective gear is against chemical warfare agents.

An ideal protective suit not only protects the person wearing it from the lethal chemicals trying to kill him or her, but it also allows them to move easily, breathe easily, and not overheat while doing it. It's a tall order. Humans throw off a lot of heat and moisture when active and sticking them in gear that's cumbersome, restrictive, and uncomfortable as all heck is a recipe for misery, as the troops dealing with chemical suits during the first Gulf War could testify.

Wearing protective gear is one thing; testing it is a far more complicated endeavor. (And doesn't that always seem to be the way? Testing the functionality of something, whether it's a computer chip or a road surface is far more of a headache than those not-in-the-know realize.) Crash test dummies, for instance, are miracles of engineering, carefully designed and instrumented to mimic the human form and measure whether something awful will happen to it if, say, your sedan gets hit by an SUV. However, an awful lot of testing with cadavers was required to figure out just how much force it takes to damage a rib cage or compress a spine and thus correlate the measured forces experienced by the crash test dummies with the resulting damage to the human body.

It is, not surprisingly, more complicated to test how effective protective gear is when exposed to chemical warfare agents. Not only do you have to sense whether the chemical is making it through the gear to reach the skin or respiratory system of the wearer (and where), you also have to make sure that the mannequin itself doesn't get contaminated. And have a testing chamber that doesn't let the lethal toxins you're using escape. And that allows you to decontaminate it easily.

Of the companies involved—Measurement Technology NW, Midwest Research Institute, Boston Dynamics, Smith Carter CUH2A, and HHI Corp.—Measurement Technology NW is tasked with the skin surface and thermal control elements of the robotic mannequin and has an excellent description of the project and their role in it here.

As much as I think humanoid robots are deeply clever pieces of machinery, this may be the most practical use of one that I've seen.

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