While much attention has been paid to China's growing armed airborne drones program, the PLA is also investing in a major effort to develop a future generation of increasingly autonomous unmanned ground vehicles. "Overcoming Obstacle 2016" is a competition supported by China's military, akin to the U.S. military's DARPA Grand Challenges. The month-long contest ended on October 18th in Beijing, with several finalists in each of the five categories.
The first group, Category A, involved highly autonomous cars. The finalists included modified from civilian SUVs, alongside a tracked vehicle, "SMART 1", from the Military Institute of Transportation.
Category B was all-terrain autonomous vehicles. The finalists included two 4x4 robots built from military recon vehicles (by the China Academy of Sciences, and the National University of Defense Technology's Desert Wolf).
Category C involved small, tracked robots, designed for tasks like urban reconnaissance and bomb disposal. Beijing Motors and Qingdao Hi Tech Corporation were among the five finalists.
Category D's legged robots provided some of the most interesting Overcoming Obstacle 2016 entries. The three finalists included two "Da Gou" quadruped robots from Shandong University and NORINCO, and the Iron Horse, a 'crab walker' from Beijing Jiaotong University, which had pivot-jointed Klann linkage legs to provide greater stability and simplicity. It bears some resemblance to Chinese research on a many-legged, auto-cannon-armed design disclosed in 2014.
Category E was robot cargo trucks. One finalist was a 6x6 truck from 5th Department of Armored Engineering Institute with independently articulated wheels, like similar to the MULE robot. Another 6x6 robot truck built by the Beijing Institute of Mechanical Research was seen carrying a simulated load. Sunward Equipment provided another finalist, consisting of two four-wheeled robots attached to each other, as a sort of robotic road-bound train.
The vivid display at "Overcoming Obstacle 2016" is a good reminder that China's research in military robotics continues to grow, and in a widening range of fields. Other areas to watch include bringing in advanced intelligence (another field in which China is becoming a world leader), swarming unmanned systems, and unmanned-manned pairings.