The Little BEAR that could: The robot that saves lives

5Sometimes war is necessary, but the cost of war is always great and many lives are lost. In an effort to diminish the loss of life, some companies have stepped up to develop robots such as the Vecna Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) to rescue soldiers from dangerous venues.

In the grim reality of war, casualties are inevitable. Casualties that result in the loss of a life are tragic. But to lose a life because of inaction or neglect is even worse. Field commanders may feel the burden of a moral dilemma when extraction or rescue decisions need to be made. Should the life of a healthy soldier be risked to save the life of a wounded soldier? All life is valuable. Yet in a tactical sense, attempting an extraction or rescue may not be the most practical decision - though it is certainly an honorable one. So what should a field commander do? In the heat of the moment, decisions need to be made with clarity and level thinking - not based on emotions.

To date, more than 655,000 (all wars since 1775) U.S. service members have died in battle[1]. These numbers do not include the other 538,000+ deaths of U.S. service members that occurred in wartime. How many of those battle deaths could have been avoided remains unknown. But with the benefit of modern technology, those numbers may not have to increase too much. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a robot that could save (or try to save) a human life? Movies such as "I, Robot" show how useful robots could be. In the movie, the NS4 robots sacrificed themselves without hesitation in order to prevent Del Spooner from being killed. Because robots have no emotion, there is no hesitation and no fear when it comes to executing an order. Robots that are programmed to rescue humans would make the perfect addition to military medical teams. However, such robots are thought to be only in the realm of science fiction, aren’t they? Maybe, but the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) just might prove otherwise.

Meet the BEAR

Today, more and more companies are engaging in the research, development, and production of technology that is poised to make an impact on the battlefield. One of the notable products in development is the BEAR.

A BEAR that treads lightly

The main purpose for the creation of the BEAR is reflected succinctly in the first two words of its acronym: battlefield extraction. It was intended for rescuing soldiers. And as such, it needs to be able to go where people can go. This requirement for extreme mobility meant that it would probably need legs of some sort, so its legs provide the BEAR with various methods of mobility. With its legs, the BEAR can walk, balance on any joint, and roll around using any part of its legs. Its most efficient means of mobility will be via the tracks on its legs. Using its tracks, it can traverse up and down stairs, so soldiers wounded on the upper floors of a building in an urban battlefield can rest assured that help is on the way.

The BEAR’s tracks are powered by an electric motor capable of propelling it at speeds up to 10 mph. Granted, that may not sound fast, but to a wounded soldier, 10 mph is better than 0 mph. For rescue purposes, traveling at 10 mph is a good speed. A wounded soldier is most likely going to be suffering from some level of shock. The last thing he needs is to have his condition exacerbated by high-speed movement.

The Dynamic Balancing Behavior (DBB) in its legs enables the BEAR to adjust to a variety of positions and still maintain its mobility with the tracks on its legs (see Figure 1). Each leg can adjust independently. This is particularly useful for carrying a wounded soldier over rough terrain or up and down a flight of stairs. The BEAR’s torso can rotate so that it can go through a doorway while carrying its precious life-ebbing cargo.

Figure 1
(Click graphic to zoom by 2.0x)

BEARing the weight

Figure 2
(Click graphic to zoom)

In order to provide enough power to lift heavy objects, the BEAR is designed with a hydraulic upper body. The hydraulics are similar to the hydraulics used in earth movers such as an excavator. Using hydraulic-powered arms, the BEAR is capable of lifting up to 600 lbs.[2] Each arm consists of three hydraulic pistons (see Figure 2). The first piston is located in the forearm. The forearm hydraulic piston controls the wrist flexion and wrist extension. The second piston is located in the upper arm and performs the basic functions of elbow flexion and elbow extension similar to the biceps brachii and triceps brachii muscles in the human body. The third piston is connected to the shoulder and located within the chest cavity. This piston simulates the lateral movement that the lateral deltoid provides humans. In addition, each piston can be rotated. With the rotational capabilities, each arm has six degrees of freedom in movement.

The BEAR responds to commands

Usually, when people think about robots, two extremes come to mind: the completely mindless machines that have been programmed to do one thing repetitively - and the machine with a mind of its own (for example, HAL 9000, "Transformers"). The BEAR hits the middle ground when it comes to autonomy. When given a command, the BEAR will proceed to carry it out. To issue commands, a Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems (JAUS) compliant Operator Control Unit (OCU) is needed. The OCU being developed by Vecna is based on the VIA Nano-ITX EPIA-NL5000[3].

The BEAR’s Heads-Up Display (HUD) will be seen on the OCU, so the human operator can see and hear what is in the BEAR’s environment. Data about the BEAR’s environment is captured through its cameras and microphones and transmitted to the OCU. The current version of the OCU employs a gamepad to control the BEAR’s actions. For example, if a user wanted the BEAR to pick up a box, the user would either type or select the 'pick up' command from its repertoire of commands, and then click on the item in the HUD. Future versions of the OCU may include voice commands. The human operator can also communicate with a casualty through the BEAR’s microphone and speaker system.

Hope for the future

The BEAR is still in the development stages. Currently, it is in its sixth prototype. But when the final product is ready (estimated to be field ready in 2015), it will take on one of the biggest problems of war - casualties. Aside from its usefulness in military situations, the BEAR will also be useful in civilian applications such as the healthcare industry or as part of search and rescue firefighting teams.


  1. United States. Department of Veterans Affairs. America’s Wars. Washington: GPO, November 2007.
  2. "Vecna Robotics Products: The BEAR Robot Product Home". Vecna Robotics Website. 2007. Vecna Technologies, Inc. 24 Mar. 2008.
  3. "VIA EPIA NL-Series Nano-ITX Board," VIA Technologies Website. 2008. VIA Technologies, Inc. 24 Mar. 2008 .

John Lin is a senior technical writer at VIA Technologies, Inc., based in Taipei, Taiwan. He has seven years of experience in the computer industry, with five-plus years at VIA. John graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business Economics from UCSB. He can be reached at

VIA Technologies, Inc.

Another role for BEAR

Because the characteristics of strength and endurance can be designed into robots, BEAR can also be suitable for lugging support gear such as extra ammunition, weapons, repair kits, communications equipment, and so on. Standard army gear consists of items such as an M16A2 rifle, M9 pistol, M9 bayonet, Alice frame pack, and extra cartridges of ammunition. Together all of these items (with a fully loaded pack) could weigh more than 70 lbs. Extra ammunition is heavy and can easily add weight. It would be ideal if every squad had at least two robots: one for carrying gear and the other for assisting the medic.