FORT BENNING, Ga. — Representatives of some 50 companies, service research labs and universities gathered under the warm Georgia sun at a remote corner of this sprawling Army base to show off the state of their art at the second annual Robotics Rodeo.
Nestled among the concrete buildings of a mock village were three demonstration areas where small tactical robots darted in and out of doorways. At a fourth site, tele-operated earth-movers shoveled dirt among a stand of trees. Next to that, SUVs autonomously drove around a track.
All of this happened as officials from the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence watched.
And that’s no accident, said Jim Overholt, senior research scientist in robotics at the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.
The center of excellence, located at Fort Benning, is now responsible for writing requirement documents for ground robots.
“Many of the government folks who are here are the ones who are going to help us craft requirements for the future,” Overholt told National Defense.
The deployment of ground robots during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has mostly been ad hoc. Explosive ordnance disposal teams from all four services were the first to widely use remotely operated machines to help them search and destroy roadside bombs. Other ground forces have sent them into buildings and caves to perform reconnaissance.
The Navy is the executive agent for the EOD robots and is busy creating next-generation bomb disposal drones. If the Army is to purchase and integrate other so-called mechanized soldiers, the documentation that will allow that to go forward must come from the maneuver center.
“Right now one of the most critical areas is really defining the hard requirements that the community can go out and respond to,” said Overholt. Vendors want to know what the Army wants, so they know where to invest their research dollars.
The rodeo was the brainchild of Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, former commander of Fort Hood, Texas, and the 3rd Armored Corps, who was perhaps unique in the Army. He was a combatant commander who held a master’s degree in robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lynch, who has since been promoted to oversee the installations command, was a vocal proponent of fielding more robotic systems, including those that are armed. He helped organize the first rodeo in September 2009 at Fort Hood to specifically show Army leadership that the technology was mature enough to be used in battle zones, where they can save soldiers’ lives, he said.
Showing mature technologies to senior Army leaders is important, Overholt said, but the event in its second year has evolved. Having officials from the maneuver center observe the demonstrations is key, he added
“As much as Gen. Lynch nailed it the first year by saying we need to do this, the emphasis this year is to try to get that requirement community engaged and to help us write these hardened documents that will help us develop the robots of the future,” Overholt added.
The four-day rodeo was divided into two parts. The first two days were military-only demonstrations, where evaluators went among the five sites to see the robots in action. The second two days were open to the public. Researchers from defense companies and service laboratories took copious notes on what their rivals were displaying, and asked pointed technical questions.
There were signs of cooperation as well. Executives with Macro USA, a small firm that has been selling light, but highly ruggedized surveillance robots that can be tossed into buildings discovered that University of Michigan researchers had navigation software that could help the company track their micro-unmanned ground vehicles without needing GPS.
Troy Tukach, CEO of Kairos Autonomi, and Chris Brown of Autonomous Solutions struck up a conversation in the parking lot on the final day. Brown wondered if both of their robotically controlled automobiles that were using the same standardized software could “talk.”
And more importantly, “Could we do this in a short amount of time without 25 researchers and millions of dollars?” Brown asked.
They had the two different vehicles connected before the scheduled 10:30 a.m. demonstration. It wasn’t instantaneous, and took a little more than an hour, but it did prove the utility of the joint architecture for unmanned systems (JAUS) software — standardized computer codes that make it easier for robot manufacturers to integrate devices onto platforms.
Overholt said the event “gives the DoD ground robotics community a chance to come together as a whole and really kind of get a feel for the state of the art on robotics in key areas.”
Participants included companies who have had long-standing relationships with TARDEC, universities, research labs such as the Navy’s SPAWAR Systems Center, and small businesses that have never had a contract with the military.
Bob Quinn, vice president of TALON operations at QinetiQ North America’s technology solutions group, said there has been remarkable progress in the robotics community since the 2009 rodeo in terms of autonomy. Last year, the exhibitors only had a few months to pull together the self-controlled robotics systems that Lynch said he wanted to see at Fort Hood. With more time to prepare this year, the demonstrations were much more impressive (see related story).
The opportunity for the organizations to show their wares before soldiers, and in some cases, let them take control of the robots, is vital, Quinn said. “We do about 30 trade shows a year, and one event like this. I wish it were the other way around,” he added.
One of the displays garnering the most interest was QinetiQ’s modular advanced armed robotic system (MAARS), which was demonstrated in tandem with a Raven unmanned aerial aircraft and the company’s smaller Dragon Runner robot. The company wanted to show how a UAV flying overhead and a small robot could be used to find enemies, and then the MAARS robot armed with either a non-lethal or lethal weapon, could disable the target. Both public demonstrations were packed with observers, although at the first showing, MAARS failed to fire its weapon. Quinn blamed the malfunction on a software glitch.
Overholt repeated what many observers have said about armed robots on the battlefield: many treaty issues and tactics, techniques and procedures have to be worked out and “intense risk mitigation analyses” have to completed before tele-operated armed robots reach the field.
“In the meantime, the military should be looking into how we fight with these things. What are the plusses? What are the minuses?” Overholt said. “We’re finally moving out on that kind of activity.”
Overholt said he particularly wanted to showcase common controllers.
“I do not want to burden the war fighters with a controller for every different robot that they’re going to see. We need to have commonality as much as possible,” he said. “I want a controller that can share images, pass messages back and forth and allow some common operating picture between them.”
That includes operating ground robots along with small unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Raven, which is already widely deployed with troops.
Leader-follower technologies, whether they are small robots that accompany soldiers in the field and carry heavy equipment for them, or trucks that autonomously drive behind other vehicles in a convoy, are some of the more mature systems that Overholt also wanted to see. They are “right around the corner” as far as their technology readiness level is concerned, he said.
“The more the soldiers get trust in the technology, the more you’re going to see them asking for new and better capabilities,” he added.
Not everyone was impressed with the demonstration. Col. Billy Miller, of the Army Signal Corps Battle Lab at Fort Gordon, Ga., came to see if any of the robotic systems on display could link with existing Army communication systems.
His blunt assessment: “They don’t.”