DARPA Is Making Transformer Robots

By Joelle Renstrom | Published

ARESIt’s been over a month since we last checked in with DARPA, which means it must be time for an update — those robotics designers at DARPA don’t stay still for long. And it turns out they’ve been working on a particularly cool project: Transformers.

DARPA’s actually been working on the Transformer (TX) program for a few years now, and last year they decided to develop the concept for ARES (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System). The system was developed in response to a common problem that arises during war: soldiers being stranded in remote and dangerous areas. In the movies, we always see helicopters swoop to the rescue, but there aren’t enough helicopters to go around. But what if there was a machine that was part helicopter, part drone, part transport, and part cargo supplier?


ARES can perform a vertical take-off and landing, like a helicopter, but DARPA claims that its tilting ducted fans make it safer, especially when it comes to hovering. It can land in a smaller area than a conventional helicopter, which means it could be useful in remote and rugged areas, or on a ship. It can also move faster than a conventional helicopter. Best of all, this helicopter/unmanned aerial vehicle hybrid could transform for use on a number of different missions. It could deliver or pick-up cargo, deliver or pick up troops, evacuate areas, perform what’s called “casualty extraction,” conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions, or be used as a tactical ground vehicle. It’s expected to be able to carry a load of about 3,000 pounds.

ARES could be controlled via mobile phone apps or tablets. Eventually, the system could be used for manned flight, and it may become more autonomous. I’m not totally sure how I feel about that — it’s hard not to imagine a madly transforming drone hovering in the air. For now, though, basically all we’d need to do is tell them how to transform and then let them have at it. What do you think of that, Optimus Prime?

The project, which has been chugging along since 2009, just entered its final development phase. Its engineering will be overseen by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, a 70-year-old division of the company devoted exclusively to aircraft. The “terrain-independent” system would represent the best of all worlds when it comes to military transport and unmanned systems. I’m sure the Stop Killer Robots campaign won’t appreciate this much, and it’s possible that ARES is a step along the way to autonomous robots making lethal decisions. But DARPA will move forward regardless, and if this systems saves lives in the field, then we’ll just cross our fingers and hope it stays friendly.