Image: Youtube/British Forces News
When it comes to military tech, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) usually makes the headlines with its gadgets, gizmos, and kickass robots. It’s a prolific supporter of robo-defence projects, from Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah and its cousin Big Dog to autonomous hands and unsteady humanoids.
But the latest piece of military robot news comes from across the Atlantic at the UK’s Ministry of Defence, which has unveiled an animatronic man to test suits and equipment for the British armed forces. “Porton Man” looks pretty impressively modern and human-like until you realise he’s stuck to a clunky external frame that moves his limbs like a puppet. But hey, at least he’s not stumbling through steps at a snail’s pace before inevitably crashing to the ground, like DARPA's cyborg hopefuls.
Video: Youtube/Defence Headquarters
The frame lets Porton Man run, walk (sorry, “march”), sit, and kneel in mid-air, to mimic the common movements of a human soldier. He can also hold his arms up as if sighting a weapon.
He’s not meant to be used in the field at all; he’s more like a high-tech test dummy for equipment in the lab. The MOD writes that Porton Man is covered in more than a hundred sensors to record data during the testing of things like chemical and biological suits, and that the mannequin is “unique to the UK.”
“Dstl (The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) is also the only laboratory in the world that can use chemical warfare agents to assess the effectiveness of complete clothing systems such as the chemical, biological and radiological suits used by UK armed forces,” they explain.
The robot was built by UK-based firm i-bodi Technology, which has created similar-looking models to Porton Man including one that sweats and one that is chemically resistant, as well as rather less serious projects like baby dinosaur automata for museums.
The company explained they used Formula One tech to keep the mannequin lightweight and give it a wide range of movement; its body parts are made of carbon composites. Western Daily Press reports that, as a result, it’s around 66kg lighter than its predecessor at just 14kg, and that it can flex its ankles, turn its head, and move its thumbs so as to wear gloves.
All that’s left for him is to suit up and see how he holds out against fake chemical warfare, all in the name of helping soldiers tackle the real thing. As the idea of war bots going the way of chemical weapons isn’t that difficult to imagine, it’s comforting to know that at least one is working on the side of defence.