By Spencer Ackerman
The Army’s remote-controlled, bomb-finding robots aren’t finding enough bombs in Afghanistan. So the military is toying with a new notion: Let the robot drive itself; and make it bigger, like the size of a golf cart.
In a recent solicitation for small businesses, the Army expresses interest in a remote-controlled vehicle that’s bigger than most robots but (way) smaller than its fleet of tactical vehicles. Really, it’s a software system outfitted with sensors for detecting a variety of bombs — “pressure activated devices and command detonated explosive devices” alike — that can turn an existing “mid-sized” vehicle into a self-driving or remotely-controlled car. The so-called “Intelligent Behavior Engine” has to support “skid steer hydraulic arm attachments” — Doctor Octopus-like robot arms, to defuse the bombs it finds. And it’s got to weigh between 500 and 3000 pounds (the size of a golf cart, Smart car, or John Deere Gator), making it hypothetically “capable of traversing long distances on narrow, rugged paths.”
It was just two months ago that the Army announced it would buy dozens of radar add-ones for armored Husky vehicles to spot and stop improvised explosive devices, a $106.5 million push. But the solicitation says the bulky Husky isn’t right for Afghanistan, since it “cannot traverse the rugged terrain and narrow paths” that pass for the country’s bomb-infested roads.
That exact same concern led the Army to put out a call last month for new bomb-detecting robots that can traverse “rough terrain, 45 degree hills, rocks, holes, culverts and other obstacles.” Only there, the Army wanted to move in the opposite direction, shrinking robots down from several hundred pounds, not bulking them up to car-like sizes and marching them for up to 30 miles at a time. Still, in a vote of no-confidence in the robot fleet, the solicitation laments that “currently fielded technologies have limited utility for defeat of IEDs on narrow unimproved routes during deep insertions into rugged terrain.”
Ideally, the Intelligent Behavior Engine will have “off-board, ‘back-seat driving’ capabilities” — controls that let troops on patrol operate the car remotely, using it for “scanning, digging and emplacing explosive charges” when it senses a bomb nearby. The Army doesn’t have either a software or a vehicle design in mind, but it says that it’ll favor “intelligent, adaptive software behaviors that provide standoff operation in terms of navigation, detection and neutralization.” In other words, when the car finds an improvised explosive device, it should know how to safely avoid, defuse or detonate it.
Much like the earlier robot solicitation, the bomb-stopping robot car is a dream for now. The Army isn’t releasing money for it right now, opting to first see what industry can dream up. Solicitations are due December 13. But the Army’s judgment about the usefulness of the current robot fleet is already clear to see. What will the incoming director of the Pentagon’s bomb squad think of a sure-to-be-expensive push for new robots?