The BEAR: Soldier, Nurse, Friend and Robot

Robots are nothing new on the modern battlefield. While there's still a way to go before our battles can be fought with Terminators and RoboCops, the military today employs a wide range of mechanized assistants that do search and rescue, bomb disposal and more.

"The Department of Defense is increasingly developing and using robots to assist troops," said Al Shaffer, deputy director of defense research and technology at the Department of Defense in an e-mail. "Robots are significant in that they can -- and are being used -- to provide greater protection to deployed forces."

But the BEAR -- Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot -- may be the first battlefield robot that can go toe-to-toe with the science fiction fantasies Hollywood filled our heads with as kids. The U.S. Congress is so confident in that, that they've earmarked $1.1 million for the program in 2007.

Though it's just in its testing phase, the BEAR is a soldier's best friend. Aside from handling all the heavy lifting at the war-fighter's base of operations, thus easing the load -- no pun intended -- it'll also take a few bullets to get a wounded soldier out of harm's way when lead's flying and things are too dangerous for human beings.

"There are lots of places people can't go, whether it's a war or a fire or a natural disaster or a chemical spill, or a germ is in the air and you need get someone out," said Jonathan Klein, director of marketing and senior robotics adviser at Vecna Technologies, where the BEAR is being designed. "It can withstand things like fire and bullets and toxic materials, and even nuclear reactor cores, and the thing that really distinguishes it is not just its amazing strength and its ability to lift things weighing 400-500 pounds safely, but to go places people can't."

Though the image of a silvery robot heroically fighting through flames to rescue his "master" as bullets ricochet off its Kevlar exterior and explosions barely miss its metallic body sounds romantic, it's not that farfetched. But there are lots of other places and scenarios in which the BEAR could be useful. While most are less action packed than war zones, they're just as heroic.

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The BEAR can stand upright like a biped, or it can fold its legs and ride on tracks running along the bot's lower legs to navigate rough terrain or to climb or descend stairs. Its upper-body strength and ability to remain balanced allow it to pick up heavy loads safely and carry them over long distances while remotely operated by a human pilot.

Though the military applications are obvious and have led to Congress setting aside $1.1 million for the program in 2007, its potential use in caring for the elderly and infirm is just as promising.

"The BEAR's lifting technology can be used to help patients to get from a bed to a chair, and in some cases [can be used] in some people's homes to help them," said Klein. "There's something dignifying about taking the human out of the loop. People want to be able to take care of themselves, and this is a robot that will allow them to do that."

Klein said that experts in the elder care industry have shown support for the BEAR program. He expects to not only see them in use at hospitals across the country but in homes as well.

"Obviously, the design will have to be modified and improved," said James Kuffner, associate professor at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute. "Maybe a track design won't be as nice for people's carpet or flooring as it is for a war zone."

Still, Kuffner likes the BEAR's design and said that when he looks into his crystal ball, he can certainly envision a not-too-distant future in which robots aid those in need. He points out that in Japan, where the nation's population is aging at an alarming rate, robot companions and entertainers have become increasingly common in both hospitals and homes.

"Studies have shown that the elderly are much more comfortable and … much happier in their own homes rather than in a hospital or nursing home," Kuffner said. "People definitely do get lonely, and just like a pet, you develop some affinity." But the BEAR can be more than a pet: It can store in its digital memory all the pictures of your friends and family, the important moments in your life, and tell you when to take your medicine.

Although Klein couldn't -- or wouldn't -- divulge a price tag for the robot or speculate as to when the BEAR would be ready for mass production, he said that Vecna's goal is to make it as affordable as a live-in home care provider for one year. As a former vice president at IRobot, makers of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, Klein knows a thing or two about turning robots into common household appliances.

Kuffner said that crazy as it might sound, the possibility that robots could be affordable and available enough to become as mainstream as a dishwasher or automobile is not only possible, but inevitable.