Battlefield Robots: Not Just 'Entertainment'.
For military service members in high-risk occupations, such as explosives detection and disposal, robots can be welcomed relief. With planned investments of at least $200 million on robotics-related research during the next five years, the Defense Department has more than just financial motivation to push robotics technology into mainstream programs. Robots can help put fewer human lives at risk and, in some cases, take over mundane jobs that troops find boring and unfulfilling.
But even though the technology is advancing in the laboratories, and systems are being used successfully in fields such as mine-detection, there are non-technical issues that the Defense Department should address before robots are taken to combar, said Army Lt. Col. John G. Blitch, program manager for tactical mobile robots.
The TMR program, which started in 1998, is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The goal is to field small, agile robots that can assist human forces on the battlefield, Blitch explained during a briefing to the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, in Arlington, Va.
The Army plans to spend $120 million on ground robotic vehicles during the next five years. About $20 million will come from DARPA.
One significant challenge for the Army, said Blitch, is how to teach soldiers to treat robots as weapons, not as toys. That is an important consideration, he said, "if we require the soldiers to maintain proficiency in their field and get additional robotics skills." Research indicates that, once a soldier starts to learn how to operate a robot, "it's likely that the primary skill will go downhill," Blitch said.
Many people wonder "what the heck is so tough" about operating robots, Blitch noted. The Air Force, for example, has been doing it for many years. But ground platforms are entirely different, he explained, because they require skills at "obstacle negotiation."
"Flying a UAV [unmanned air vehicle] around is a relative easy task. It's a benign environment [with] no obstacles, except for the occasional ski cable car," said Blitch. "You don't have people trying to pick you up and throw you away. Controlling a ground platform is infinitely more difficult."
The ground robots currently in development still require high levels of human intervention--they are not autonomous. The upshot is that the operators must be well trained and knowledgeable, said Blitch. "Right now, we have pretty dumb robots. So we have to compensate for robot stupidity with skilled operators." Twenty years from now, "we may have more sophisticated vehicles that will not need as much operator skill."
The robots in the TMR project are not "entertainment-type systems," said Blitch. "Our platforms have to deal with challenging tactical situations."
Nonetheless, Blitch said, the last thing the Army should do is "degrade combat units" when robots are introduced to the force. "We should not be messing around with our front-line combat units," he asserted. For that reason, robot operations should be assigned to National Guard units. "The Guard has more freedom to fail," he said. In active-duty units, conversely, if the technology fails, a commander's career is over and the unit gets "blacklisted."
The TMR program is not designed to develop robots that can replace people, but rather machines that can do what humans cannot, Blitch said. The current focus of the program is to teach the robots how to deal with obstacles, how to figure out their location and how to right themselves after tumbling or flipping over.
In the TMR program, he said, robots must not only avoid obstacles, but also have to perform better than manned vehicles in rugged terrain. "If the robot can't handle slopes steeper than what the Humvee can climb, [it is of] no use to me.
The next phase of the TMR testing will focus on urban combat and trying to get the robot to penetrate denied areas, such as city sewers. These robots could be used, for example, to search through rubble and find victims of earthquakes or bombings.
Most robots in development today are not intended for combat in the trenches. The TMR, however, "will be designed to be shot at," Blitch said. It also may be able to fire small arms to distract the enemies.
In the long term, he said, robots will acquire some level of on-board intelligence. "We want the robots to alert us when they want a human to step in and control.... It has to know whether it has completed the task well enough."
One idea that the TMR office is evaluating is the so-called "marsupial" concept of operations, in which a larger combat vehicle carries the robot to battle, and the robot, in turn, can serve as a refueling platform.
Asked whether today's young soldiers, many of whom grew up playing Nintendo games, are more apt as robot operators, Blitch said the answer is "surprising." During early experiments with TMR, the "Nintendo factor" came into play, "but nowhere near what we thought.
"I figured that kids would be walking straight into the robot control," Blitch said. But operating robots is much more complex than playing video games, because it requires an understanding of "sensor fusion." Every video game comes with a lot of noise and visual action. But the data provided by robots come from multiple sensors, so interpreting that information is much more difficult than just hearing and seeing.
Even though Blitch is optimistic about the technological achievements in the TMR program, he said it would be unrealistic to assume that these systems will work until more testing is done with large numbers of robots.
"I would recommend buying 300,000 of these immediately," he said. "That is the best thing you could do for robotics. Buy a large quantity [to] flush out the human-interface problem. ... We need to be able to play around with tens or hundreds of these things."
Robots are performing quite successfully in the field of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), said Paul Milcetic, a representative from the Defense Department's EOD program office, which has 3,300 qualified EOD technicians from all the military services.
Unmanned ground systems also are becoming popular in civil engineering and force-protection applications, said Capt. David E. Shahady, chief of robotics research at the Air Force Research Laboratory. The service so far has fielded about 200 robotic systems.
Among those systems is a 350-pound robot (the Andros Mark V-Al) that can remove small explosives from aircraft and buses. A 700-pound vehicle targets medium-size, improvised explosives, Shahady said.
The newest robot is a 10,000-pound all-purpose system, designed to detect and remove large explosives, such as a truck bomb. At least 20 have been fielded, Shahady said, and there are plans to buy 30 more.
EOD units are considering buying a laser weapon for ordnance neutralization. It would be a 1-kilowatt chemical laser that would burn unexploded ordnance, said Shahady. He told potential vendors that the price has to be no higher than $300,000, in order to make it available to all EOD units. Additionally, the Defense Department wants new robotics tools to remove explosives from dead bodies, as well as large robots that can travel fast and rescue victims from an aircraft crash site, where it would be unsafe for humans to operate.
The Andros robots employed by the Air Force also are used by the Army in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, because they can maneuver well in the sand, said Shawn Farrow, vice president of Remotec, in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The company is a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp.
The company makes the Andros line of robotic vehicles, which can maneuver in sand, gravel, snow and mud, Farrow told reporters during an Army conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The company's largest military program is the remote ordnance neutralization system, which includes 178 robots. The program began 11 years ago. Deliveries should be complete by 2002, Farrow said.
Underwater Mine-Hunting Robots to Replace Humans, Dolphins
Remote-controlled underwater vehicles equipped with advanced sensors could help Navy submarines explore water-ways that would be too shallow for most boats to operate in, officials said.
Two-thirds of the Yellow Sea in Southeast Asia and three-fourths of the Persian Gulf are shallower than 180 feet. To operate in these waters, the Navy needs small surveillance platforms, such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), that could perform clandestine mine reconnaissance and collect tactical intelligence, noted Scott Farnsworth, the Navy's deputy program manager for UUVs.
Among the top priorities is to develop a "mission-reconfigurable" vehicle that has a common frame but can be equipped with different sensor payloads, he said. Funding for this program will be available in 2004.
One application of UUVs has been the semi-autonomous hydrographic reconnaissance vehicle (SAHRV), said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Doug Homer. The four-year $25 million program is funded by the U.S. Special Operations Command and is designed for the special naval warfare units, called Navy SEALS.
The SAHRV is launched from a special operations craft, or it could be launched from a submarine. It is used by SEALS to scan sections of the ocean from the 21-foot to the 10-foot mark, said Homer. It used side-scan sonar to identify obstacles. "The idea is to provide post-operation information in the form of hydrographic charts," he said. The data would be sent to the commander of the amphibious force deployed in the area.
The SAHRV navigates via transponders that are installed 60-100 nautical miles from the shore. "The key is placing the transponders accurately," said Horner. SEALS in the craft can monitor the operation in real time and can reprogram the vehicle. The SAHRV can search a 800 by 1,000-yard area in about 3.5 hours. The batteries last 60 days.
In addition to the side-scan sonars, the vehicle has conductivity sensors to measures water salinity, temperature, depth and an optical backscatter to gauge the clarity of the water.
The data is converted to graphics-friendly reports and charts, but a human operator has to review the side-scan records manually and flag potential hazardous objects in the water.
Recent tests with four vehicles off the coast of San Diego were successful, said Horner. He expects that 14 vehicles will be operational by February 2003.
The Special Operations Command plans to fund future upgrades to the SAHRV in 2003-2006. These include:
* A computer-aided detection/classification algorithm onboard the SAHRV vehicle to relieve the operators from doing side-scan sonar interpretation. The algorithm would be able to discriminate mine-like objects.
* A near nadir/forward-looking sonar, to cover areas that currently have no sonar. Forward-looking sonar would help dodge obstacles, such as fishing nets.
* Acoustic communications, so that operators who identify mines can report the information to Marines before they select a landing zone for a beach assault.
* Precision navigation, so that transponders would not be needed and the SAHRV would operate directly in the water.
For underwater mine detection, meanwhile, the Navy's largest development is the so-called remote mine-hunting system (RMS). Some of the technology in SAHRV "can be leveraged with RMS," said Capt. Terry Briggs, the RMS program manager.
RMS is one among seven systems that makeup the Navy's organic mine-countermeasure concept. Five are airborne, RMS and the so called long-term mine reconnaissance system (LMRS) are UUVs.
The vehicle is launched from the decks of host surface ships, specifically Aegis destroyers. "It allows the host ship to remain off shore, safer from coastal fires," said Briggs.
Built by the Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics division, the RMS weighs 14,000 pounds, measures 4 feet in diameter and is 23 feet long. It's powered by a 370-horsepower diesel engine and carries 240 gallons of fuel. Its search speed is 8-12 knots, and it can operate for up to 24 hours. On-board sensors include forward-looking sonar for obstacle avoidance. A masthead camera allows the operator on the ship to take control manually. There is a mission recorder on board for post-mission analysis.
The towed sensor package weighs 1,000 pounds. It carries a forward-looking sonar, a volume-search radar to classify mine-like objects, aside-look sonar and a gap-filler sonar.
The other mine-hunting submersible, the LMRS, "expands the reach of the submarine sensors," said Capt. John Lambert. Two UUVs will be deployed from the new Virginia-class attack sub marines. They will be carried in the torpedo room. With an endurance of 12-15 hours, the LMRS will have a forward and a side sonar. The 21-inch vehicle (the size of a torpedo tube) weighs 2,800 pounds and moves at a speed of 8 knots. The Boeing Co. received a development contract in November 1999 for 12 units.
In a separate program, the Navy plans to deploy a new UUV for explosive ordnance detection by 2006, which would replace human divers and dolphins, said Capt. Rick Kiser. The vehicle would be equipped with low-light cam eras and would cost $150,000, not including sensors, he said.
The goal is to develop a small UUV to cover 10 by-10-nautical mile areas at depths of 10 to 300 feet. This technology, said Kiser, could be used to locate aircraft crash sites.--Sandra I. Erwin ND
Future Combat Vehicle Drives Research in Robotics
If the technology works as promised, the Army of the future will assign robots to conduct many of the functions currently performed by humans on the battlefield.
As part of the Future Combat System (FCS) program, the Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are developing a new 20-ton vehicle that, in about 20 to 30 years, will replace the heavy 70-ton Abrams tanks. Having robots as part of the force structure could help the lighter vehicles become more effective, said Kerry Kachejian, a manager for business development at the Raytheon Co., in Falls Church, Va.
Raytheon is one of many companies in the United States today that are pushing robotics research and trying to gain a share of the Army's FCS dollars. Raytheon is part of one of four teams competing in the FCS program. The Army plans to select a winner some time before the end of the decade, so FCS can be available by 2012 or 2015.
"How do you make a 20-ton vehicle as capable as a 70-ton vehicle? Well, the basic premise is to distribute the functions among multiple platforms," explained Kachejian. Under the FCS concept, certain parts of the vehicle fleet will be robotic, in order to keep soldiers out of harm's way. Robotic direct- and indirect-fire vehicles might produce a signature--a sound or sight that might make them targets--but the human operators in the command/control vehicle could stay clandestine and out of the line of fire.
Removing humans from military vehicles offers other benefits as well, said Louise Borrelli, a robotics expert at Raytheon. Without crews aboard, an unmanned air vehicle would no longer be limited in the amount of G-forces it can handle. Current passenger vehicles are also restricted in their maneuverability. Borrelli said, "FCS is trying to take that limitation away and look at mobility character istics for not only going around obstacles, but being able to negotiate obstacles to take advantage of the fact that there won't be people in there. So you can do things like flip over, fall over, roll over and sustain high G-forces."
One of the most challenging technologies in robotic systems is the ability to make them operate autonomously, or at least semi autonomously. "Depending upon the terrain and the environment, we may have a high degree of autonomy, where your conditions are not very complex. But when you get into a very complex condition, the degree of autonomy may be less. It may be more like supervisory autonomy," explained Borrelli.
Ongoing research in the fields of robot autonomy and off-road mobility is sponsored by the Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, among others. If a vehicle gets stuck or cannot sense properly, then the operator must intervene. This has led to the development of software that will automatically alert the operator, so he or she can get the vehicle back on track
An M1 Abrams tank typically carries a four-person crew. With FCS, the capabilities of one tank would be distributed among several vehicles, noted Kachejian. If the decision is to have two or three robots and a manned command-control system, he said, "you don't want to have a separate operator for each robot." According to Kachejian, the Army would really like the robots to operate entirely autonomously when they are together and only have operators get involved in emergencies.
Then, there is the question of the level of operator involvement, Kachejian said. "Hopefully, they are not completely dedicated operators, so they could be doing other things, but get involved by exception' For example, an infantry man who was assigned to clearing a building would not have to interrupt his duties, grab a laptop and joystick, and control the robot.
A large part of the work for the FCS going on at Raytheon is on command, control and situation awareness. "Part of what we are looking at are difference modalities for command and control, hands-free operations, so we don't overwhelm the eyes and the ears of the opera tor," said Borrelli. The research is geared to making communication easier. "Right now, under the FCS concept program, the idea is that you now have a distributed force structure.... You really need a distributed environment and part of what brings that together and makes it work is the network and communications infra structure," she explained.
Today, a human must be kept in the loop to support weapons fire, and that requires a reliable communications and networking infrastructure, especially when the controller is located at a different site from the vehicle.
"In a battlefield, having real-time command and control and being able to respond to things, sense and react to things has life-or-death consequences," said Kachejian. Plus, tactical communications for on-the-move operations have to be wireless, like a cellular phone network but much more sophisticated. A cellular phone network has fixed base stations, but that infrastructure is not going to be avail able in remote locations, where the Army may have to fight. "You don't want time taken to set up an infrastructure. So you really need communications on demand, on the move," Borrelli said.
Under the FCS concept, the infrastructure is embedded in the mounted and dismounted force.
Sensor technologies are critical for unmanned systems. The vehicles them selves are worthless without useful payloads. Borrelli said that smaller and lighter sensors will not only increase the overall performance but will also aid in determining what information gets sent around the net work-while minimizing the bandwidth being used. Various cameras, such as thermal and daytime, are used to make sure the robots can collect data. That information has to be sent back to the commander.
"We're trying to create an environment where the commander gets the right information at the right time," said Kachejian.
"If you have a dismounted person who maybe goes into a vehicle, they can 'plug in' to the vehicle and access the information using the resources within the vehicle. If they are dismounted then they can go use the resources in the wearable," Borrelli added.
The gear that robot operators would need includes a set of gloves for command and control, glasses for display, wearable computers and communications devices and a low-profiling antenna. The antennas and communications gear can be embedded in the robots, in order to avoid having a long mast sticking up in the air. This is important because the robots, especially the small ones, are low to the ground, Kachejian said. "Some of the robots are less than a foot high, and are a communications challenge, just by their size."
Along with sensors, some of the larger vehicles would be outfitted with weapons. Ultimately, he said, "The force would like to have the full spectrum of weapons available, because on one block if could be a crowd in a riot and you want to fire a crowd control agent, and the next block could be a shooting war."
A. Duffy Baker
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|Author:||Erwin, Sandra I.|
|Date:||May 1, 2001|
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