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Improving, increasing robotic system capabilities: army collaborates with industry, academia to develop autonomous warfare.

ROBOTS on the battlefield remain among the most exciting advancements of technology's meet-up with warfare since the machine gun. But, as with any other high-tech luxury, the need for expanded capabilities for these fascinating Soldier must-haves has been supersized. Military, industry and academia are combining resources to upgrade fielded combat robots through proofs of concept they've designed under the Army Research Laboratory-managed Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance, which formed in 2010. This is so tele-operated systems like Talons and iRobot Packbot can become autonomous, meaning, "a Soldier doesn't have to use a joystick to direct a robot to a location. He can treat it like another Soldier and tell the robot to go down the road and peer into a window," said Dr. Jonathan Bornstein, ARL's robotics collaborative alliance manager in Aberdeen, Md. "It would be as good as a Soldier, but if the robot gets shot, at least we don't lose a Soldier."


Researchers have already combined their technological ingenuity to morph the Talon, a man-portable tracked vehicle, into a new autonomous system for small robots, equipped with customized sensors, an in-house INS/ GPS unit, a 360-degree camera system and a 360 LADAR (laser radar) scanner. Together, these allowed for greater obstacle detection and 3-D mapping.

The system also includes upgraded power distribution boards, e-stop system, Ethernet radios, control computers and the code for running the system. It was showcased at the MAGIC 2010 competition in Australia, and placed third across the globe. Work on the autonomous Talon will continue under the Robotics CTA, Bornstein said, to enable further development of autonomous mobility technology for small unmanned ground vehicle systems.

Robot autonomy can be a touchy subject though, because many solutions, although unmanned, are actually tele-operated from distances far away from military operations. To arrive at a truly autonomous state, Bornstein said, robots will need to be given "basic behaviors much like we do a trained dog; we'd be doing good then."

That means robots will need to be programmed to perceive, understand and easily adapt to dynamic, unknown and changing environments and scenarios; independently plan and execute military missions; learn from prior experiences like people and share common understanding with Soldiers, and eventually, other robots.


Researchers are investigating ways to get robots to essentially and seamlessly integrate into military and civilian societies beyond learning and reasoning, but also to react with near-human dexterity to do what's currently impossible, like turn a doorknob, pick up a needle or maneuver through 3-D environments like dark caves that have rugged dry terrain, mud and water.

Modeling human behavior in robotic systems isn't easy. Some experts say translating the world into symbolic coding schemes is close to untenable. But ARL engineers specializing in human factors integration are leading military efforts in cognitive robotics research to take ground-based robotic systems beyond architectures that support a robot's working memory, to architectures that will support perception and long-term memory.

Here's the difference: With working memory, robots could play a game of chess or complete any other task-related function. But that, grouped with long-term memory and perceptual systems, would allow robots to play chess and think about the world around them. They would consider memories about things that are rarely ever forgotten, like George Washington was a president or cats are mammals, or even more difficult to program, that a particular door--because of its size, shape, color, thickness, fixtures, etc.--is one that's never been seen before, explained Troy D. Kelley, team leader of the cognitive robotics and modeling research area.

"We can't program robots for everything; they'll have to learn from experience just like humans, so we have to program them to have adaptive learning," Bornstein said. "A Soldier has to be adaptable through training and intuition to fulfill operations. Technology can satisfy this in a robotic system."
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Author:Gibson, T'Jae
Publication:Soldiers Magazine
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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