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Army tests a human-robot buddy concept that’s straight out of Metal Gear

By Benjamin Bullard
Old Snake salutes in Metal Gear Solid 4

Maybe Hideo Kojima really is some kind of military techno-future prophet. In a move that could’ve been cribbed straight from Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the U.S. Army is exploring a human-robot buddy system that, like Snake’s setup in MGS4, will let soldiers voyeuristically spy from afar the more immediate dangers that lurk around their robot sidekick’s next corner.

In the video game, tech guru Otacon hooks Snake up with Metal Gear Mk. II, a pint-sized (and almost cute) two-wheeled droid that broadcasts video and other vital field info back to Snake’s eyepatch. Otacon introduces the friendly little fella as “a remote mobile terminal designed to provide you with operational support,” leading Snake through all kinds of late-adopter’s grunts and grousing before he begins to see how useful an extra set of eyes could be.

In the real world, the Army Research Laboratory is testing what pretty much amounts to the same thing. Describing its “robo-teammate” concept as “the first human-robot team in which the robot detects physical changes in 3D and shares that information with a human in real-time through augmented reality,” the Army and researchers with the University of California, San Diego recently published their findings from early field testing at the 12th International Conference on Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality.

We’re not entirely sure what drives all the tech that makes the Metal Gear Mk. II go, but its real-life counterpart is described as a “mobile ground robot” that uses LIDAR laser sensing to “build a representation of the environment,” which it delivers to a “human teammate.” Sadly, that teammate doesn’t get Snake’s cool eyepatch — but still scores big technology points with AR-enabled glasses that display, in real time, what the robot scout “sees” via an augmented reality interface.

The potential uses for the Army’s diminutive droid are right in line with Snake’s. “This could let robots inform their Soldier teammates of changes in the environment that might be overlooked by or not perceptible to the Soldier, giving them increased situational awareness and offset from potential adversaries,” explained Dr. Christopher Reardon, a researcher at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, in the project’s news release. “This could detect anything from camouflaged enemy soldiers to IEDs.”

In the concept’s debut outing, the main thing researchers wanted to test was whether the info the robot sent back was readable and useful to its human handler — and the Army says the early results look promising. “[M]ost engineering efforts to provide humans with mixed-reality interfaces do not examine teaming with autonomous mobile robots,” said Reardon. But the test demonstrated, in a real-world setting, that humans in the field could see and evaluate the shared information, and that it was reliable and solid enough (pun intended) to lead to tactical human decisions.

For now, the human-robot buddy system is still in the research stage. But the military already believes its research is laying the groundwork for integration with other forward-looking gear — “future Soldier mixed-reality interfaces such as the Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System goggles, or IVAS.” By tweaking and refining the robot’s AR abilities to recognize threats, as well as giving its human partner some robot-based options for how to respond, the Army says it’ll use the research as a basis for a tech-based field partnership that could one day see action — even if the battle for best robot personality has already been decided in the Metal Gear Mk. II’s favor.