Defense tech: an illustrated guide

A high-speed running robot, a helicopter-Humvee hybrid, and a flying video camera are just a few of the new armaments coming out of Boston-area labs.

By Scott Kirsner
July 31, 2011

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At least since the US government contracted with a Boston shipyard to build a sturdy frigate with 44 guns – it’s still afloat in the Charlestown Navy Yard, more than two centuries later – Massachusetts companies and research labs have been developing cutting-edge technologies for the military. Half of the radar systems used to spot enemy aircraft in World War II were designed at MIT; more recently, the Army has relied on remote-controlled robots from Bedford’s iRobot Corp. to investigate potentially dangerous situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the armed forces try to better prepare for scenarios such as supporting rebels fighting an entrenched government or battling terrorists hidden in urban areas, the state’s defense contractors are inventing tools that might prove useful. Here’s a briefing on what’s in the works.


(Unmanned Airborne Surveillance)

Aurora Flight Sciences, Cambridge

The stealthy black Skate looks like the kind of radio-controlled airplane you might see at a hobbyists’ meet – if hobbyists had $20,000 or more to drop on an ultra-advanced toy. The 2-pound aircraft from Aurora Flight Sciences can fit into a backpack, snaps together in less than a minute, and can be lofted into the air with one hand. Skate can fly like a plane or hover like a helicopter, indoors or out, for about an hour, relaying video to the ground. Twin propellers are attached to the wings with magnets, so in a crash they pop off to avoid being damaged. Skate can fly to a specific location and circle on autopilot; engineers are still working on its ability to automatically avoid obstacles when flying indoors.


Boston Dynamics, Waltham

How might the military use a robot capable of running faster than the fastest human, across rugged terrain? While not getting specific yet, the Pentagon picked Boston Dynamics to develop Cheetah, a robot that seems ideally suited for covering ground where Humvees can’t go. “We are actually building two competing designs,” explains Boston Dynamics president Marc Raibert, “one focused on a concept that is particularly energetically efficient, and the other which provides exquisite control at the expense of efficiency.” The aim, he says, is to have a robot that will move at 20 miles per hour by the end of next year, and increase speed in subsequent models. “I expect the first machine to weigh about 120 pounds, and be about the size of a real cheetah, though simpler,” Raibert says.


Raytheon’s BBN Technologies division, Cambridge

Getting shot at tends to quicken the pulse – and doesn’t exactly promote calm, clear thinking. Raytheon’s Boomerang Warrior-X is the wearable version of a technology that was originally affixed to the roof of a Humvee; it can pinpoint the direction from which shots are being fired. A compact array of microphones sits on the soldier’s shoulder in what looks like a tiny canteen. Boomerang connects to a hand-held display that shows where the hostile fire is coming from, and how far away it is. A speaker or earpiece can also say that information aloud, leaving the soldier’s hands free.


iRobot Corp., Bedford

In March, iRobot took the wraps off a robot about the size of a car stereo and rugged enough to be thrown, dropped, or plunked into water. Tossed into a potentially hostile environment, the FirstLook robot moves around on two mini tank treads, using its four built-in cameras and infrared illumination to suss out its surroundings – for as long as six hours for a typical mission, and up to 10 hours of stationary video monitoring. It can carry “destructive payloads,” as well as sensors to detect radiation and chemicals. “Given its size, it is ideal for infantry missions and special operations,” says iRobot spokesman Charlie Vaida. The first production units will be available for delivery next year.


Atlas Devices, Boston

The Atlas Power Ascender is the kind of adventure accessory James Bond would covet: It’s a rope-climbing machine that weighs just 17 pounds but can lift up to 500 pounds. A trigger controls the speed that you travel up (or down) the rope, as fast as 4 feet per second. It has uses in combat, equipment moving, and rescue operations. Oh, and it works underwater. Atlas won’t divulge the price, or its customers, aside from saying that it sells only to government agencies and the military. That’s too bad for wannabe 007s.


Raytheon’s BBN Technologies division, Cambridge

Run TransTalk software on an Android smartphone, and you’ve got a translator in the palm of your hand. When you speak into the device, it displays the translation on the screen and utters it aloud, in a digitized voice. (A special clip-on “backpack” adds a more sensitive microphone and louder speaker to the phone.) Though TransTalk is less accurate than a human translator would be, Raytheon notes that people who can do the job are often in short supply. TransTalk already works for languages including Iraqi Arabic, Pashto, Indonesian, and Farsi. Spanish is coming soon.


US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Natick

By the time diesel fuel makes it to bases in Afghanistan, it can cost as much as $400 a gallon. To cut fuel consumption, the Army has been evaluating lightweight solar materials that could be affixed to the tops of large tents to work in tandem with diesel generators. “The nice thing about solar panels is they’re quiet and relatively maintenance-free,” says Barry DeCristofano, a chemical engineer who has been overseeing testing in Natick. Among the photovoltaic materials being tested is one developed by Konarka Technologies, a Lowell start-up.


Terrafugia, Woburn

Breed a Humvee and a helicopter, and the offspring would resemble the Transformer TX. The concept vehicle, commissioned by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, would drive like an off-road vehicle, take off like a chopper, and fly like a plane. Why fly? To escape from ambushes, avoid road obstacles, or medevac injured soldiers. Woburn-based Terrafugia, which is building a $250,000 flying car for civilians, is a subcontractor on the project. Design work started last year, and a prototype could be in the air by 2015.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column and blog for the Globe. E-mail him at

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