The Pentagon currently owns 6,000 robots — 3,500 of which are deployed in combat zones. Most serve in military bomb-squads and explosive detection units.
That may seem like a lot of robots, but to officials who oversee robot technology development at the Defense Department, it is just the beginning. They believe that there is potential for thousands more robots to deploy alongside soldiers and Marines in maneuver-warfare roles such as reconnaissance and surveillance.
The military will continue to rely on robots for mine clearance and explosive detection, but the widespread growth of robots on the battlefield is “going to occur on the maneuver side,” says Jeff Jaczkowski, deputy project manager at the Pentagon’s robotic systems joint program office.
Commanders are asking for “persistent surveillance” and better “situational awareness,” he says at a Washington, D.C., conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Surveillance and reconnaissance missions could be performed by other systems such as overhead drones. But Army officials see robots as filling a niche role — such as entering and inspecting buildings — that typically are only carried out by soldiers. Robots would stay on duty 24/7 and give soldiers protected cover in potentially dangerous situations.
Once infantry teams gain an appreciation of what robots can do, the demand will grow, says Jaczkowski.
But the Defense Department has yet to clear several technical and bureaucratic hurdles before infantry robots that meet soldiers’ needs are produced in large numbers.
Units that are soon heading to Afghanistan have requested reconnaissance robots, but they need to be much lighter and smaller than current systems, says Jaczkowski, because they have to be transported by helicopter or by infantry units on foot. “If infantry soldiers and Marines are packing a robot, it has to be light and agile,” he says.
The Army is developing five new types of robots under the Future Combat Systems program. But the one robot that is intended for urban reconnaissance — the small unmanned ground vehicle — weighs 32 pounds.
“We need to bring it down,” says William Daniel Folk, deputy product manager for FCS unmanned ground vehicles. Engineers are looking to trim the weight by downsizing the cooling equipment that the robot requires to keep its computers from overheating.
The Army claims that one SUGV can be packed into a standard “molle” rucksack.
Jaczkowski says that for many soldiers, a “common concern is the weight, size, frequency allocation and power consumption” of robots. Soldiers want extended range and robust communications, more compact devices, a common controller that can be used with multiple robots and longer battery life.
Officials insist that soldiers will see new robots in combat sooner than originally expected. The SUGV is scheduled to begin operational tests in 2010. If successful, the robot would be a jack-of-all-trades for the squad leader. It would clear buildings, tunnels, caves, sewers; locate and inspect booby traps; climb stairs; maneuver over rubble, and operate in six inches of water. So far, 22 prototypes have been built and delivered to the Army.
One obstacle for the robotic program office is that the Army’s standard equipment list for combat brigades does not include robots, so special arrangements must be made to assign robots to deploying units.
“We’re not part of the MTOE,” says Jaczkowski, referring to the “modification table of organization and equipment” — a document published by the Defense Department which prescribes the organization, staffing and equipping of units.
“We’re working with the Army on that,” he says.
Another concern for the robotics program office is how to keep pace with changes in user needs and enemy tactics, Jaczkowski says. As technology advances, existing robots quickly become obsolete. The Defense Department does not yet have plans for fleet-wide upgrades of current robots or for refreshing the technology.
Some of the technology that troops want would involve incorporating robotic features into existing combat vehicles. “We’ve talked to users from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment,” Jaczkowski says. They would like to see “tele-operation” features added to their Stryker and Bradley armored vehicles. “They want to flip a switch and go from manned to unmanned.”
Other units have complained about robots requiring too many human operators. “It’s one of the biggest ironies in unmanned systems,” says Ellen M. Purdy, enterprise director of joint ground robotics.
For ground robots, she says, the best-case scenario is one operator per robot. But soldiers want a single operator to control a team of robots.
In trying to achieve these ambitious goals, robotic program officials encounter obstacles not unlike those that other military hardware projects face: it takes a long time to move technology through the Pentagon bureaucracy and, by the time it arrives, the needs in the field may have already changed.
“The challenge is the requirements process,” says Purdy. “If you want funding you have to have a requirement. A program manager can’t program money if there’s no requirement, and it takes a couple of years to program money.”
A case in point was a request two years ago from deployed units for unmanned vehicles that could move in a supply convoy autonomously. “We can’t do an autonomous convoy but there are things we can do to automate some of the tasks,” Purdy says. The problem was that there were no official “requirements” approved by the Army’s senior leaders. “We have great technology but no requirements,” she says. To circumvent the system, Purdy’s office asked members of the unit to help write the requirement. “We learned from that. We have to engage users much earlier,” she says.
The current procurement system isolates the scientists who understand the technology from the soldiers or Marines who have to put the technology to use.
“Only a select small group of people has insight into what unmanned systems can do and what technology is emerging. But not very many are deployed in theater,” says Purdy. “That body of knowledge rests with industry and labs, not with the folks who put requirements together,” she says. “We are working on how to fix that.”Robots also are at a disadvantage in the competition for radio spectrum. “Everybody wants wireless communications. We’re running out of radio frequencies,” says Purdy. “Most of the spectrum goes to manned vehicles. We get the scraps.”