Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Efforts to Field New Kinds of Ground Robots Have Had Little Success

By Stew Magnuson 

The life-saving qualities of ground robots have been touted since explosive ordnance disposal teams began widely using them at the outset of the Iraq invasion in 2003. But since then, other applications for the potentially life-saving technology have not reached Iraq or Afghanistan.

Their predicted influx into the battlefield has stalled. That’s not to say that research into myriad applications hasn’t continued. But so far, the experiments have not made the transition to the current fights.

Acceptability on the part of senior military leaders is one of the major roadblocks, officials said at the National Defense Industrial Association ground robotics conference in Miami.

“How do we make these systems real systems?” asked Grace Bochenek, director of the Army Tank and Automotive, Research and Development Center. “It’s one of the stumbling blocks we are having as a community.”

More than two and a half years ago, TARDEC showcased its convoy active safety technology, or CAST, which allows soldiers in convoys to travel in trucks hands-free. Roadside bombs targeting supply vehicles have taken scores of American lives. What if drivers could be freed up to watch the road sides for potential ambushes? Or if only one driver was present in a convoy of a half dozen trucks?

“We need to be able to get our drivers off the roads with autonomous capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. Lee Miller, director of the capabilities development directorate at the Marine Corps combat development command.

Bochenek said the CAST technology is now mature enough to be fielded. As is the case with every new system, however, it’s a matter of having official requirements documents in place as well as the funding.

A robotics rodeo held last September at Fort Hood, Texas, at the urging of then base commander Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, may have loosened the logjam, at least for CAST.

Lynch, as a former combatant commander who also holds a master’s in robotics technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the ground robot community’s champion in the Army. At a Washington unmanned systems conference last year, he railed against the lack of progress being made in fielding “life-saving robotics technologies.” He listed five technologies that were mature enough to be sent to the battlefield. Among them was a convoy-leader system. CAST was demonstrated at the rodeo the following month. Since then, the necessary operational needs statement has been obtained, said Bochenek.

“We think it’s 80 to 90 percent mature — today — ready to be deployed. The key is the funding in order to actually put it into theater. I’m optimistic about it,” she told National Defense.

Armed robots were another application on Lynch’s list. The Army made an attempt to field such a capability in Iraq in 2006, but the handful of teleoperated robots that carried machine guns were never used in combat as they were intended. Commanders were nervous about this new capability, and worried about “involuntary movements” shown in tests that may have sent a bullet flying in the wrong direction.

Currently, no one is clamoring for armed robots and there are no requirement documents forthcoming, said Don Sando, director of capabilities development and integration at the maneuver center of excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.

“We want to experiment with [them], but I don’t think we’re ready to just put them out there and say ‘let’s just drive around with a bunch of armed robots.’”

Miller, who handles all the urgent equipment requirements for the Marine Corps, said, “There has not been a request for an armed robot coming in from the field.”

Sando added: “What happens when a six year old puts a trash bag over your armed robot? Do you shoot the six year old? Probably not. We’ve been thinking about it a long time, but we just haven’t answered the questions.  … But we think deep … we have a responsibility to look far out.” Evidence that funds were continuing to be spent on armed ground robots sat outside the conference hall, where the Army Ripsaw MS2 was being featured.

The vehicle-sized remotely controlled tracked robot can travel at speeds of up to 60 mph, carry payloads of up to 2,500 pounds and is designed to operate in all terrains, a fact sheet said. It is a joint project being developed by TARDEC and the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center. Howe and Howe Technologies is the contractor. The drone can carry a variety of weapons including an M240 or M249 7.62 caliber machine gun, nonlethal crowd control weapons, or grenade launchers. The sheet listed several potential applications including: surveillance, route clearance, convoy support, perimeter defense and crowd control.

Marine Corps Col. Mark LaVoillette, deputy division chief for capabilities acquisition on the joint chiefs of staff, said soldiers are good at figuring out how to use new technologies in ways not imagined during the development process.

Unmanned aerial vehicles were in the experimental stages for years, but it wasn’t until they reached war zones when other applications emerged.

“You will probably see the same thing with ground robotics,” he said. “It’s an evolutionary process.”

The aforementioned UAVs seem to be receiving all the attention and funding, several speakers noted. “Money is starting to become an issue,” LaVoillette said. “There is downward pressure on budgets across the board  ... We have to be very smart on where we spend our money.”

John Miller, director of the Army Research Laboratory, said the prices of the sensors that allow autonomous navigation have to come down.

Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command, said, “Sensors need to be better at perception and very cheap … We can’t afford the sensors, much less the vehicles.”

Jim Overholt, director of the Defense Department’s joint ground robotics enterprise, said, “There are limited funds in the ground robotic arena, so we have to be very strategic, very tactical in ways we invest our dollars and where we invest our dollars.”

Cost is a concern for TARDEC as it tries to widely field the CAST system. The goal is to drive the price per kit down to $20,000 per vehicle. It is the classic chicken-or-the-egg manufacturing conundrum. The price remains high until they are being made in larger quantities.

The ARL’s Miller added: “It is key to find commercial applications for some of these systems if we’re ever going to build them in an affordable fashion.”

The larger issue is whether battlefield commanders will feel comfortable adding these new technologies in war zones. Safety is always a concern when it comes to such ideas as trucks that drive themselves, or robots that carry weapons.

“Clearly it is an issue that drives a lot of our technology,” said Miller. “How do we assure that we can operate in the presence of humans? It’s a technology challenge. It’s one we’re pushing hard. But it’s also I think a policy challenge.”

Brogan added: “We need to work on utility and acceptability.”

Bob Quinn, vice president of Talon operations at QinetiQ North America’s technology solutions group, said the garbage bag over the robot scenario is an example of the “what-if-itis” that plagues the upper ranks of the military when it comes to concepts such as armed robots.

Young soldiers “get it,” he said. “The closer you are to being shot, the more interested you are in these applications,” he added. He lamented the absence of Lynch, who now leads the installation management command, and has duties that take him away from advocating for robots. Lynch’s statement at the conference last year that if “we’re not fielding, we’re failing” carried a lot of weight. “That message resonated so well,” Quinn said. There doesn’t seem to be anybody at the moment advocating for more ground robotic applications, he added. “I do so hope that there is a replacement in the general officer ranks who picks up the mantle and talks about the life-saving capabilities” of robots, he said. The alternative is to wait for some of the junior officers, who have a “visceral understanding” of the technology, to rise through the ranks, Quinn said.

Despite Lynch’s move to the Pentagon, the robotics rodeo will continue. The 2010 Robotics Rodeo is scheduled for Oct. 12 to 15 at the Maneuver Battlelab at Fort Benning, Ga.

It is described as “a market research event to see whether new technologies could potentially benefit Army robotics programs. Soldiers use the new technologies, ask questions and provide honest feedback to the industry representatives.”

The ARL’s Miller hopes for a tipping point — similar to what UAVs experienced several years ago — when costs, reliability and utility all converged. “Perhaps 10 or 20 years from now — when we’re looking back at where we were today — hopefully we’ll see similar results and have lots of unmanned ground systems permeating, not only the military, but the civilian market.”

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