SAN ANTONIO, Texas — With the success of explosive ordnance disposal robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rapid development of the technology in the private sector, one might assume that “mechanical soldiers” are here to stay.
But that might not be the case.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are proliferating in the skies, and their place in combat operations, and routine surveillance and reconnaissance, is now widely embraced and accepted.
Not so for ground robots, experts said at the National Defense Industrial Association robotics conference.
“We are at a critical point in this business,” said retired Army Gen. Paul Kern, now a senior adviser to the Cohen Group. “Where are the programs that are going to carry us to the future?” he asked.
EOD robots have been a resounding success, but the bomb disposal community is small — numbering a little more than 4,000 personnel across the four services. The Navy, which is the lead service in developing EOD robots, is beginning work on its next generation of technology. But when U.S. forces eventually leave Iraq, demand for their services may slacken, Kern pointed out.
Some robots were sent into caves in the early stages of the Afghanistan conflict to perform reconnaissance work. Others have been sent into buildings, but maintaining communication links proved to be difficult.
As a result, this application of the technology has not progressed much during the past seven years, Kern said.
Another niche application is robots that enter buildings and search for chemical and biological weapons.
One such system, the chem-bio radiological nuclear unmanned ground reconnaissance robot (CUGR), was developed by the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., and has undergone assessment tests. But sources familiar with the project said the CUGR seems to be in limbo and it is not making the transition to a program of record.
Ground robots “will disappear from the inventories unless we do something about it right now,” Kern said.
Robert Quinn, vice president of Talon operations at Foster-Miller Inc., said there are three waves of military applications for ground robots. The first two waves were sparked by the demands of the EOD teams and combat engineers, who are tasked with performing roadside clearance. The next wave will be from the infantry, which he predicts will be a “huge market.”
For now, the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the Navy EOD next generation bomb platforms are the two programs driving ground robotics development in the military. FCS plans include mules, which will autonomously carry loads for soldiers, and small reconnaissance robots, designed to enter buildings and send back pictures to soldiers.
FCS’ future, however, remains in doubt. The program faces yearly funding cuts and has yet to face a preliminary design review and a limited user test, either of which may torpedo or slow down its development. Two of the FCS’s unmanned vehicles have already been cut out of the program for budgetary reasons.
Armed ground robots are another application that is making little progress. Most agree that it is too soon to introduce them into battlefields. Three remotely controlled armed robots were sent to Iraq last summer, but have not seen action (see sidebar).
Ellen Purdy, director of the joint ground robotics enterprise at the office of the undersecretary of defense, said the military will “start moving in a more deliberate and ambitious direction” when it comes to ground robots.
One way to move the ground programs forward will be to get them to work together in “collective” operations with other unmanned systems.
“I’ll bet my paycheck that robotics is a game changing technology,” she said. “When we start to get unmanned systems operating collectively doing missions for us, it is going to change significantly how we do our missions.”
Combatant commanders want them, she asserted. One officer working in counter-drug missions in the jungles of South America recently outlined for her what he would like to have. Smugglers use rivers to move their contraband. An unmanned boat, perhaps a submersible, would ply the waters looking for suspicious activity. If it detects something unusual, controllers would bring in a UAV with foliage-penetrating radar to search for possible drug labs in the area. If it spots a hidden building, the aircraft can drop a ground robot into the area to get a closer look.
The commander wanted all that within the next 18 months, which of course, will not happen, she noted.
“Clearly we’re not there yet, but that’s the kind of thinking we’re starting to see,” she said.
Her office is working on a detailed roadmap to be released this November, which will spell out what technologies the ground robotics community should pursue for the U.S. military.
Both Kern and Quinn said the younger generation is embracing the technology. But that may not be the case for senior military officers.
When it comes to armed robots for example, Quinn said it’s the soldiers going out on patrol or on combat missions who are the most enthusiastic.
Kern said these are the users who should be writing the requirements for military robotic applications. But if the technology fails to live up to its promise, then its progress could come to a halt, he added.
The industry needs to come up with common standards to ensure the software and platforms are easily upgradeable and adaptable to new applications, he said.
“Don’t forget logistics,” he told members of the industry at the conference. “If it’s not reliable, if its not maintainable, and you’re going to run out of batteries, it’s going to get left behind.”
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