With tightening budgets and one high-profile program delayed by several years, ground robot acquisitions are coming under increasing congressional scrutiny, officials who oversee procurement of the technology said recently.
“We need to deliver affordable programs,” Tom Dee, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems Program Review.
The Navy is the executive agent in charge of procuring explosive ordnance disposal robots. After seven years of effort, it has failed to field replacements for its legacy systems and the commercial-off-the-shelf machines sped into the field during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Air Force officials announced in the summer of 2014 that they had run out of patience and were partially withdrawing from the program.
The Navy at the outset of the advanced explosive ordnance disposal robotic system (AEODRS) program said that rather than awarding a winner-takes-all contract to one manufacturer, it would bring the design and development in-house. The three classes of robots would be modular and run on a common operating system. Robot makers would compete to manufacture components, but there would be no lead system integrator among the vendors.
Dee recognized that the delays were caused by this new way of doing business.
“We tried to do things on our own. … We had a little bit of a delay in getting our RFP [request for proposals] out there because we discovered it’s a little more difficult,” he added.
The Air Force pulled out of the increment 1 program in favor of off-the-shelf technologies to fill its smaller ground systems needs. The three classes vary by size and weight, with increment 1 being a backpackable version weighing about 35 pounds.
Deborah Aragon, a spokeswoman at the Air Force Civil Engineer Explosive Ordnance Disposal program said the Air Force “is observing the Navy acquisition of Advanced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System increment 1, but has decided at this time to withdraw from AEODRS increment 1 based on programming and funding issues.”
A Navy PowerPoint presented at an October 2011 industry day stated that increment 1 RFPs would be released March 2012 and the robot would go into limited production by the first quarter of 2013.
The Air Force said it would still consider rejoining the program as the Navy continues with the larger robots. The increment 2 robot will weigh 130 pounds and increment 3 will weigh 485 pounds.
“The Air Force EOD program is still following and engaged in AEODRS increments 2 and 3. Air Force EOD equipment modernization managers are continually evaluating the viability of commercial off-the-shelf systems to meet near- and long-term mission requirements as fiscal uncertainties jeopardize future modernization programs,” she added.
Dee said despite these delays, “the Navy is committed to the joint service EOD program. We’re committed to the technology; we’re committed to the unmanned system.”
The EOD robots will work on an open architecture system in which their components can be replaced or updated separately, which will deliver big cost savings, he said. The first contract awards for increment 1 will come in the third quarter of 2015, he said.
The contract awards will comprise plug-and-play components such as manipulator arms, powerpacks, wheels or tracks for mobility, sensors and other tools that can be attached depending on the mission.
Dee added that while AEODRS is the Defense Department’s only official ground robots program of record, “the Army is doing heroic work pushing their programs forward. They, like us, are struggling … with all the budget problems, and I think we’re going to reach a confluence.”
Maj. Gen. Robert Dyess, director of force development for the office of the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, said ground robots are in three of the Army’s 12 portfolios: soldier, protection and sustainment.
Luckily, budget numbers for Army science and technology funding will remain at fiscal year 2012 levels, Dyess added.
As it stands, the Army intends to produce a set of multi-purpose ground robots to debut in 2021, he said.
To deal with the prospect of budget cuts, the Army is looking to turn existing programs — like the common robotics system-individual (CRS-I), a robot intended to replace its small unmanned ground vehicles and autonomous mobility appliqué systems — into programs of record.
In the near term, it will continue to reset 1,452 of the commercial off-the-shelf ground robots it acquired over the past 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dyess said.
These existing unmanned ground systems will be used by the Army’s global response forces and other units until programs of record are established, he added.
In a time of fiscal austerity, the argument of “toys versus troops” also comes into play, Dyess said.
Troops and technology cannot be exchanged as equals, Dyess added. However, as the number of troops is being cut, unmanned systems are paramount to maintaining readiness.
“We will have to… do the balancing act between the force structure, the modernization and ‘trained and ready,’” he added.
These systems can be used to extend the troops’ reach in combat situations, Dyess said.
The services need these systems to be “affordable, interoperable, autonomous and semiautonomous systems that can be deployed as force multipliers,” he said.
They are looking beyond the dated notion of using these systems for “dirty, dull and dangerous” work to extending military power in ways that troops won’t be able to with decreased numbers, Dyess added.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are increasingly looking at the myriad military ground robot programs with skepticism, and may consider bringing them all under one program, said Chris O’Donnell, tactical warfare systems specialist at the joint ground robotics enterprise in the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Although members of Congress expressed interest in having only one office to field all unmanned ground robotics systems, O’Donnell said that isn’t the way that his office intends to move forward with robotics acquisition.
He instead stressed the importance of having joint programs between the services with an emphasis on commonality and interoperability among ground robotics systems.
“We have a roadmap across the department. We’re trying to make sure that our unmanned systems are well integrated,” O’Donnell said.
Despite this decision, members of Congress remain skeptical of the Defense Department’s plan to support multiple programs in lieu of placing the unmanned ground systems under one program office, he added.
The question of different services working on similar robots programs came up at a National Defense Industrial Association unmanned systems conference last year where Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary for the Army for acquisitions, logistics and technology, said the Army is also looking to field an upgradable, robot with open architecture that would be able to perform multiple tasks. The Army would have to consider purchasing a “stop-gap” robot in the meantime, she said.
A small robot using a common operating system and plug-and-play components that could be swapped out depending on the mission sounded identical to what the Navy was developing for its AEODRS program. Yet Shyu said the Army version wouldn’t be ready until 2021.
O’Donnell said having joint programs is the best way to integrate technologies and spark innovation.
“We have a very good forum twice a year for executives to get together and think about where are we going to go with unmanned systems and how are we going to get better cooperation between development efforts,” O’Donnell said.
He emphasized the necessity of getting ground robots into the hands of warfighters in a timely manner.
“We have leaders … who have grown up over the last 10 years [in Afghanistan and Iraq] with integrated operations with these unmanned systems,” he said. There is no longer an argument about whether or not these systems are needed, he added.
“The real question is ‘What is the most beneficial way to use these systems across the department?’” O’Donnell asked.
The problem lies in the slow and costly process of development, and how to make these systems interoperable. he said.
Though the joint office has developed this roadmap to interoperability among ground robots, “none of this matters … unless we can tell them [Congress] it will save money,” O’Donnell said. Photo Credit: Defense Dept.