Army scientists and researchers predict that ground battlefield
robots will play a prominent role in the future force, but today’s
technology still is not capable of delivering some essential features,
such as robots that can navigate autonomously and communicate effectively
A key test for the U.S. Army’s robotics program will be the
Future Combat System, which was conceived as a network of manned
and unmanned platforms that will replace existing tanks and fighting
In the FCS, the unmanned vehicles are supposed to operate in forward
areas, into enemy terrain. However, robotic systems currently lack
the “robustness and flexibility” required to take on
this role, according to the Defense Department’s 2002 Joint
Robotics Program Master Plan.
A Pentagon official who is familiar with the robotics program said
that semi-autonomous and autonomous mobility are still not feasible,
but that “serious progress” could be achieved in about
five years. “It is a lot closer than we thought it would be,”
he said. “Responsive robotic dogs exist already.”
Current robots are operated by remote control (tele-operated).
They do not think independently.
“When I am on the screen and give the system a command and
the machine knows how to get from point A to point B—this
is semi-autonomous,” said the official. “It’s
like riding a horse. You don’t tell the horse to pick up its
feet—the horse goes where you direct it.”
With tele-operation, there is a communication link between the
operator and the platform “and that requires a lot of bandwidth.
Ever so often you lose the link you hit a dead zone. And so, you
can’t get the images back,” he said.
A semi-autonomous system would have sensors for collision or obstacle
avoidance, even when the link is broken, he said. “You just
send a command to it and the system is smart enough to go to the
coordinate. so you don’t have to have the pipeline open. You
help your communication problems tremendously.”
Tele-operated machines communicate either through RF (radio frequency)
or through fiber optics—“which can be a tail to the
machine and somebody can easily cut it,” he said.
There are specific missions where the communications links are
vital, such as explosive ordnance disposal or hazmat (hazardous
materials) operations. “The machine is an extension of [the
operators] arms, ears and eyes,” he said.
Autonomous ground robots will have to have a real-time processing
capability. It will have to think like a human, so to speak, the
Such autonomy is what officials hope will bring advanced capabilities
to the Future Combat System, particularly in roles such as intelligence
gathering and re-supply missions.
The Army has put FCS on a fast track and is trying to have an initial
operational capability before the end of the decade. To meet this
ambitious timetable, the Army has adopted a two-tier approach. The
initial fielding of FCS is slated to use unmanned systems with limited
autonomous mobility capabilities. The technology will rely on human
intelligence aboard the manned leader vehicle to “reduce the
perceptual and intelligent control requirements for the unmanned
follower vehicle,” according to the master plan.
For the long term, the goal is to boost the onboard intelligence
of unmanned systems, thus reducing the reliance on human intervention
to complete a mission.
The leader-follower concept for robot operations has been the source
of some debate in the Army. Some experts question the wisdom of
having multiple vehicles depend on a single leader. As one official
put it, “all the enemy has to do is shoot down the leader
vehicle, the one with all the antennas.”
Joint Robotics Program
The Joint Robotics Program, established in 1990, maintains those
two tracks in its acquisition strategy: to develop and field first-generation
unmanned ground vehicles with current technologies (tele-operation)
and to pursue technologies for semi-autonomous mobility that gradually
can be inserted into first-generation systems.
In 2002, the Pentagon’s ground robotics program received
$27.6 million and a congressional plusup of $6.4 million.
According to the master plan, tele-operation is a proven technology
and will be fielded with the first-generation UGVs. However, current
tele-operated machines need to be improved, so they can perform
multiple missions, said the report.
The first-generation UGVs include the Remote Ordnance Neutralization
System (RONS), Standardized Robotic System (SRS), Robotic Combat
Support System (RCSS) and All-purpose Robotic Transport System (ARTS).
Operation Enduring Freedom prompted the U.S. Air Force to order
30 RONS. The Air Force is also using ARTS overseas for force protection
and homeland defense. Eighteen units have been fielded and the service
has another order for 28 units.
Two years ago, the Army established the Semi-Autonomous Robotics
for FCS Science and Technology Objective. The STO is scheduled to
conclude in fiscal year 2005 and will focus on the development of
The STO will address the perception and intelligence required to
allow vehicles to roam throughout the battle space, without “substantial”
operator intervention, said the master plan. The technology has
to be adaptable to various environments and missions.
The STO “will focus upon developing vehicle behaviors, analogous
to the skills possessed by soldiers that will enable unmanned FCS
elements to possess a reasonable level of tactical knowledge and
adaptability,” said the report. Ideally, systems will ultimately
be able to operate almost autonomously, employing “commander’s
intent” to develop operational plans.
The STO incorporated technology developed under an existing Army-Defense
Department program called Demo III, designed to look at both active
and passive sensor models across the electromagnetic spectrum. These
include radar, LADAR (laser radar), visible electro-optic and infrared
imaging for the detection and classification of objects that may
affect the vehicle’s mobility.
Since all unmanned systems will, for the foreseeable future, have
soldiers in the loop, the program is also seeking to develop modular
interface software for the control of multiple unmanned systems—which
could be incorporated into future tactical vehicle command-and-control
The current Demo III prototype is a four-wheel drive, four-wheel
steer, hydro-static drive vehicle, weighing 3,200 pounds. Its engine
is off-the-shelf and the vehicle has stereo sensors, FLIRs (forward
looking infrared) and cold FLIRs, said Chuck Shoemaker, from the
Army Research Lab’s Demo III program.
Other participants in the Demo III program include the Energy Department’s
national laboratories, the National Institute of Standards and Technology,
the ARL Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance—a consortium
led by General Dynamics Robotic Systems, with Carnegie Mellon University
Robotics Institute, SRI International, Sarnoff, Jet Propulsion Laboratories
and the University of Maryland, Applied Systems Intelligence, Micro-Analysis
and Design, BAE Systems and Florida A&M University.
Demo III is under a 36-month contract worth $11.5 million, according
to the ARL.
Research for Demo III has concentrated on three areas: perception,
intelligent control and behaviors and man-machine interfaces.
Soldiers are brought into the development process through virtual
and live experiments. Demo III is meant to develop and integrate
technology that will enable a single soldier to operate of up to
four unmanned vehicles while they maneuver off-road at speeds of
up to 20 mph and on-road at speeds of up to 40 mph. The actual goal
is to have vehicles go at half the speed of a manned Humvee truck
in the same terrain.
According to the master plan, the program made significant strides
in November, at field exercises conducted with soldiers from the
28th Infantry Division (Pennsylvania National Guard). Four experimental
UGVs participated—three configured for reconnaissance, surveillance
and target acquisition and one configured for obscurant dispersal
These vehicles maneuvered autonomously throughout the terrain requiring
only minimal operator intervention when they became “confused
and were unable to rapidly proceed with the mission due to the relative
myopia of the perception sub-systems,” said the master plan.
Because of the increasing interest in UGVs for the FCS and the
Army’s Objective Force, the Defense Department agreed to extend
the Demo III program for approximately 18 months beyond its initially
scheduled conclusion in fiscal year 2002.
Over the next year, Demo III is expected to participate in the
FCS Lead Systems Integrator Unmanned Combat Demonstration and conduct
additional field exercises, said the ARL.
The program will also focus on basic behaviors such as seeking
cover and concealment in rolling, forested terrain.
Subsequently, the program will work on the development of complex
military behaviors and “while it is expected that they will
be fairly brittle, it will provide the experience base required
for the creation of adaptive behaviors later in the program,”
said the report.
A key technology for creating such behaviors will be long-range
perception algorithms and sensor suites that can perceive three-dimensional
environments from as far as 500 meters away.
In the foreseeable future, the Army would like to test the tactical
behaviors that will allow an unmanned vehicle to maneuver over terrain
that no manned vehicle has crossed before.
By October 2004, the Joint Robotics Program STO plans to demonstrate
higher speed (35 mph) off-road mobility for FCS-scale vehicles and
cooperative behaviors such as two vehicles providing support cover
during a longer route.
Reaching these goals will require higher resolution local terrain
information at longer ranges, improved sensor data fusion and use
of contextual data to provide cues for negative obstacles.
By 2005, the program will seek to implement and demonstrate adaptive
tactical behaviors. Adaptive behaviors only can be achieved through
the development of appropriate learning algorithms, said the report.
Ground Combat Vehicle
Meanwhile, DARPA and the Army are jointly funding the FCS unmanned
ground combat vehicle (UGCV) program, which is being managed by
DARPA. This program looks at the performance gains of combat vehicles
without the constraints of accommodating an onboard crew.
The primary metrics for the UGCV are endurance (14 days and 450
km off-road), obstacle negotiation and payload fraction. Airdrop-ability,
robustness to crash, reliability, signature and cost come as secondary
The UCGV program completed 11 preliminary designs over nine months
in 2001. In October four of the designs entered critical subsystem
testing and detailed prototype design. Two of those designs are
capable of 1,500 kg of payload. These payloads can range from marsupial
robots to sensors to weapons systems to smaller air vehicles.
The program is also looking at UCGVs with a payload of 150 kg,
which would serve as reconnaissance and surveillance vehicles, carrying
self-protection and even armor in some cases, said Scott Fish, DARPA’s
project manager for the UCGV.
In July, DARPA awarded $5.5 million contracts to Carnegie Mellon
University and Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control to build
UGCV prototypes. Both designs use hybrid-electric drive trains.
These prototypes will undergo testing in 2003 and 2004.
The Army is looking at UCGVs, said Fish, because the service needs
increased deployability that would come from reduced platform mass
and volume and from simplified air-drop. Also, high endurance and
lower manning are desired features.
“Robots will eventually crash,” said Fish. Contractors
need to think about that—local control and recovery need to
be included in the planning, he said at an industry conference.
However, Fish cautioned, “Robots will be the lowest priority
for re-supply. Manned aircraft will not land in hostile territory
to deliver robots.”
Another jointly sponsored Army-DARPA program is the FCS perception
for off-road robotics (PerceptOR). The project is studying several
perception approaches for off-road robotic navigation.
“We are trying to gather a bunch of data and find out what
robots can do,” said Fish. “Honestly, we don’t
know what robots can do.”
In this program, he said, higher resolution data will soon be available
and it is going to contribute to safer and faster robot operations.
The PerceptOR program outfitted eight Honda all-terrain vehicles
with four different perception approaches over eight months, beginning
in March 2001. Three teams were selected in December for Phase II,
which includes four unrehearsed experiments in 2002 to highlight
the strength and weaknesses of each approach. The companies leading
the three teams in this phase are SAIC, Carnegie Mellon and General
However, said Fish, the program is facing some technical challenges,
such as the registration of data from multiple sensors into a common
world map; terrain and object classification under various lighting
conditions; maintaining the location understanding when the GPS
(Global Positioning System) is degraded; operating near a potential
obstacle, backing up and turning in confined spaces and adapting
to weather effects.