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Florida researchers obsess over robots in program designed to use technology to train U.S. Marines

Humanoid robotic technology helps to reduce cost, military researchers say

Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, confront avatars, or virtual humans, while clearing a room at the Infantry ImmersionTrainer located at the I Marine Expeditionary Force Battle Simulation Center at Camp Pendleton, California.
Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, confront avatars, or virtual humans, while clearing a room at the Infantry ImmersionTrainer located at the I Marine Expeditionary Force Battle Simulation Center at Camp Pendleton, California. (JOHN L. WILLIAMS/U.S. NAVY via DOD)

ORLANDO, Fla. – University of Central Florida researchers were working with the U.S. Navy Thursday on a study meant to employ robots during marine forces' training.

The Pentagon has used sensor-outfitted mannequins known as "surrogate robots" to collect data before. This time, UCF researchers will investigate how different types of people interact with different types of "animatronics," robotic devices that emulate a human or an animal.

The study "could lead to breakthroughs in creating the next-generation of avatars, robots and other human surrogates" for the military, Eric Beidel, a spokesman for the Office of Naval Research, said in a statement released Tuesday. 

The "complex situations" that will play out at the university lab in Orlando will "require a greater amount of interaction," as  people need to be trained to "inhabit" the robots with a handheld user interface and head-tracking software, Beidel said.

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During a recent demonstration, an actor used a robot "to play the part of a local villager in Afghanistan seeking compensation for goats that had been killed," Beidel said. He also added that the "human controller can be anywhere and can rapidly switch between characters."

The Pentagon hopes that the type of humanoid robotic technology tested at UCF will help reduce cost and logistics burdens. The study is part of the increasing focus on the use of technology lined up in the Navy's Science and Technology Strategic Plan of 2012.

"If human role players are not available because of cost or other reasons, this research will help us understand the type of surrogate to replace them with," ONR program officer Peter Squire said while referring to the study as "crucial" to improving military training.