The future of military drones isn’t surveillance and dropping bombs. It’s transformation: a single unmanned vehicle that can fly, swim, drive, and even hop like a frog across a variety of terrains and obstacles.
Conceived by the Intelligent Systems, Robotics and Cybernetics unit at Sandia National Laboratories, the “Multi-Modal Vehicle Concept” would travel land, sea, and air by transforming itself to accommodate different terrains. Its wings become fins as it dives into water, or underwater paddles that shed casings to reveal wheels as it moves toward land — wheels with the ability to jump 30 feet into the air. An entire campaign could be conducted by a remote operator or, more likely, semi-autonomously.
As it stands now, carrying out a similar mission would require coordinating a team of unmanned aerial, undersea, and ground vehicles made by different manufacturers with different communications systems. It would take careful planning to make sure all vehicles are in place at the right time. But Sandia says that because the Multi-Modal Vehicle is designed modularly and works off one interface, it won’t be subject to those same hang-ups, and that it can adapt mid-mission as conditions change.
“The real value added [of the Multi-Modal Vehicle] is that it allows maximum flexibility in highly complex missions without the concern over whether or not all of the vehicles are positioned just right,” said Jon Salton, a Sandia engineer working on the project.
Sandia has such high aspirations for the Multi-Modal Vehicle that they say it might eventually be able to carry out missions usually reserved for Special Operations forces.
“[Multi-Modal Vehicle] should be at least be able to substantially enhance the capabilities of Special Ops,” said Salton.
Thus far, Sandia has built and conducted limited testing on conceptual hardware, designating it a “mature concept.” Next on the list is to secure funding for the prototype and approach industry partners to turn the concept into reality.
Multi-Modal Vehicle does have its limitations. Because it sheds parts and material as it transforms from one mode to another, recovery is almost impossible — making every mission an expensive one-way trip.