By Stew Magnuson
The Navy this year will begin constructing its next-generation of explosive ordnance disposal robots.
But manufacturers hoping to score a big contract as a prime contractor on the program will be disappointed. Work on the technology will come piecemeal and the service intends to be its own lead systems integrator, said Byron Brezina, robotics technologist at the naval explosive ordnance disposal technology division.
At the outset of the Iraq war, when improvised explosive devices were taking service members’ lives almost daily, the Navy rushed ready-made bomb disposal robots into the field. But Foster-Miller’s Talon and iRobot’s Packbot had their own proprietary software and hardware and their own logistical tails that required different replacement parts and technicians trained to fix them.
The rapid acquisition of these systems, which continues today, made sense at the time, Brezina said. But the new family of three robots will be built from the ground up without any commercial-off-the-shelf hardware or software, he said.
“It’s time to move forward and have a true open architecture system,” he said at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.
The program will be a test of the Defense Department’s modular open systems approach policy, which is designed to ensure that the services don’t purchase proprietary technologies that make it costly and time consuming to add components.
The EOD family of robots will include a small version that can be carried in a backpack, a medium-sized variant equal in size to the Talons and Packbots carried in the back of trucks today, and a large-sized version that would be towed by a trailer and used for base and infrastructure protection.
Work will begin this year on the small, also known as the dismounted, version.
The Navy has identified nine subsystems that all three robots will share. The architecture will allow any future capabilities to be added if requirements change, Brezina said. More importantly, the government will own the architecture.
Currently, if EOD specialists ask for a new tool to be added to a bomb disposal robot, the manufacturer of the new device must coordinate with Foster-Miller or iRobot to integrate the new capability.
And that process doesn’t always go smoothly, Brezina suggested.
Contracts will be awarded in the fourth quarter of this fiscal year for the subsystems: the power pack, the handheld controller’s hardware and software, a communications link, a video module, a manipulator module and an autonomous behavior module.
One firm may receive multiple contracts, or nine separate companies could be working on the different components, he said.
The Navy will be the lead systems integrator through the development process. After that is completed, “we really haven’t made a decision beyond that,” he said.
The program is beginning with the dismounted version for budgetary reasons, he said. But also because the Navy wants to prove the open architecture approach, he said.
“It probably makes sense to do one first before trying to jump into [making] all three,” he said.
The schedule calls for limited production of the robots in 2013 and full production in 2014. At about that time, work will begin on the medium and large robots. Whether a nongovernment systems integrator will be used to develop these two robots has not been decided, he said.
Requirements for the small robot currently call for a 100-meter range and six hours of endurance. The robot, the controller and the backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 35 pounds.
The medium tactical operations robots are envisioned as the workhorse of the family just as the Talons and Packbots are now. They will be slightly larger than those models, at 164 pounds. They should travel up to 1,000 meters with six hours of endurance. Unlike the small robot, the medium one will have the ability to climb stairs.
The 750-pound base/infrastructure robot will be towed in a trailer. As the largest robot, its arms will be required to lift up to 75 pounds. It should travel as far as 1,200 meters with six hours of endurance.
The medium and large robots will have bimanual manipulators. EOD specialists carry out tasks on the current models using one claw-like tool.
Having two tools to render bombs harmless is one of the top items on the users’ wish list, Brezina said. Although this capability will be one of the programs biggest technological challenges, he admitted.
“EOD is lot about manipulation. That is really one of the big jumps we’re taking here.”
How much autonomy should be included in these next-generation robots has been studied extensively, and included input from EOD technicians.
Navigation is one of their primary needs, he said. The specialists should be able to mark a spot on the video screen — using a point-and-click feature — directing where they want the robot to go. It should proceed there, avoiding obstacles on its own using the Global Positioning System. It should also be able to do this in low-light conditions and when GPS isn’t available. If the communications link is cut, they want the robots to return to a pre-designated rally point on its own.
Automated manipulation on the two larger robots is also an important need. Users want point-and-click grabbing and the ability to custom program the manipulator to do new tasks depending on their needs.
“The interoperability and interchangeability within the system is going to enable faster acquisition once we get the architecture set,” Brezina said. It will provide the programmers and developers continued access to state-of-the-art technologies “and will prevent them from being locked into a proprietary system,” he added.