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Battlefield Robots: Not Just ‘Entertainment’ 


by Sandra I. Erwin 

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 combat, 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-A1) 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.

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