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Navy robot training center simulates life in the desert and jungle

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The US Navy has opened a new training center for robots, which simulates conditions ranging from sandy deserts to humid jungles.

US Navy bot Lucas
US Navy bot Lucas

The upcoming Naval firefighter SAFFIR will be tested on a decommissioned boat, but for other robot technologies, real-life simulations aren't so easy to replicate — so the US Navy built a training ground. The Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research in Washington, DC is a 50,000-square-foot building with designated areas designed to simulate everything from a Middle Eastern desert to the humid jungles of southeast Asia. One area, for instance, features a 2.5-foot deep sand pit complete with a fan that can whip up a sandstorm. The jungle habitat is 60 feet tall and includes real mango and jackfruit plants and simulated weather, and uses a sprinkler system to produce pouring rain. There are also spaces to test robots in water and in the air, and an outdoor section with waterfalls, ponds, and a forest.

These areas let the Navy see how experimental robots will operate under real-world conditions before they're actually sent out into the field. And right now there's a pretty eclectic bunch of bots in training — from an underwater drone that eschews propellors for dorsal fins, to a bat-like robot that can "see" via sonar. There's also Lucas (pictured) and his robotic sister Octavia, whose technology could eventually be integrated into a SAFFIR-like firefighter. The siblings feature an array of sensors that let them take in human commands and then determine the best course of action. Their bodies can indicate their status — for instance, a tilted head means the robot is thinking about what to do — and they can use speech to respond to people. And when a face like that talks, you'll definitely want to listen.