Navy to Field a Family of Next-Generation Bomb Disposal Robots

By Stew Magnuson

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The Navy will field a family of bomb disposal robots to replace the ad hoc commercial systems being used in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Byron Brezina, robotics director of Naval explosive ordnance technology division, said plans call for a suite of small, medium and large robots that will be able to perform a variety of missions depending on their size.

The Navy will “take all the lessons learned, build on the success [of current EOD robots], and come out with a true family of systems,” Brezina said.

A “large smart mule” with a manipulator arm that can dispatch up to three smaller robots is also being considered, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association ground robotics conference.

The Navy, which is the lead service in charge of fielding bomb disposal robots, wants a scalable common chassis — not unlike what the Army is building for its Future Combat System vehicles. The robots will run on open software architecture, meaning there will be no more robots running on proprietary operating systems.

EOD robots have been one of the technology success stories of the Iraq conflict. But it was not by design. The proliferation of improvised explosive devices beginning soon after the invasion in 2003 forced the Navy to speed commercial-off-the-shelf robots into battle zones.

Several systems were fielded, but two main robots emerged as the workhorses for EOD teams: the Talon, manufactured by Foster-Miller, and iRobot’s Packbot.

Both have proven their worth, and have helped save lives by lessening the exposure of EOD personnel to bombs, “but we can do better,” Brezina said.

Army Col. Karl Reinhard, who recently returned from Iraq where he served as the commander of Task Force Troy, the U.S. military’s in-country counter-IED team, said EOD personnel have performed some 25,000 missions in Iraq, and suffered 30 casualties. The casualties would have been higher if it weren’t for the robots, he said.

However, “improvements can be made and should be made,” he said. Robots should be able to see, touch and even hear when they are downrange acting as surrogates for the technicians, he said.

“That robot should be a complete extension of the soldier. The soldier should feel as if he is there,” Reinhard said.

An important improvement will be the open architecture systems so robots can use “plug-and-play” attachments. If the need arises for new tools or sensors to be placed on the robot, they need to be quickly fielded, he said.

The industry is already moving in that direction. The Defense Department has mandated that all future robotic systems use the joint architecture for unmanned systems (JAUS) software, which will make all platforms, systems, payloads and components interoperable. Some of that is already happening now, said Robert Quinn, vice president for Talon operations at Foster-Miller.

The Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey recently fielded a fish-eye lens for the Talon robot “without any involvement from us.”

“We think the plug-and-play nature of our system is giving the users most of what they want,” he added.

Still, the two different robot models now being used in the field means upgrades must be made at least twice, Brezina said. And that adds costs.

The family will consist of three basic robots. A small 30-pounder will be used by troops traveling on foot. The medium sized robot will be around 160 pounds and is intended for transport in tactical-wheeled vehicles.

The largest size will weigh more than 160 pounds — exactly how much more has yet to be decided — but it should be the most capable of the three. The larger the size, the more power it could wield in its manipulator — or robotic arm. It could also carry a larger suite of sensors.

“We might as well get all [the capability] we can within that weight limit,” Brezina said.

Another robot being considered for the family is the “large smart mule.” According to designs Brezina showed at the conference, the mule would have its own manipulator arm, but would also carry up to three smaller robots — one medium-sized and two smaller ones. The mule could carry these others down range, and then dispatch them to perform separate missions as needed. It could also serve as a communications relay.

Autonomy is the buzzword in the robotics industry. Technologists are pursuing robots that can perform without human operators controlling their every move.

Bart Everett, technical director for robotics at the Navy’s space and naval warfare center, told National Defense earlier this year that it is too early for EOD robots to be dismantling bombs without a human on the other end. Autonomy software is not yet sophisticated enough. However, an operator could mark a spot on the map that he wants the robot to investigate, and allow it to travel there on its own using the Global Positioning System. That is in the realm of the possible, and would make the operator’s task easier. Any time he is concentrating on driving the robot, he’s not keeping an eye out for the enemy, he noted.

Brezina said the family of robots will “contain a significant amount of autonomy, but autonomy that is appropriate for the EOD mission.”

“We will work hard with users to determine what type of autonomy we should invest in,” he added.

Users have said they want robots that are easy to repair. To that end, they will have modular designs, Brezina said.

Reinhard said $180 million was spent in fiscal year 2007 on repairing robots. Busted machines are sent to repair depots, which is sometimes a logistical hassle.

EOD personnel should be able to do basic repairs without having to use soldering irons, Brezina said. A modular design would allow broken items to be swapped out quickly.

A key improvement to future EOD robots will be a common controller. The Packbots and Talons came with bulky and heavy operating systems.

“We’re going to have to have a common controller. We’re not going to have three 30-pound controllers for three robots. We have to get beyond that,” Brezina said.

The need for rugged controllers was part of the reason the operating systems were so large, Quinn said. Today, they can be operated from smaller laptops and even PDA-sized controllers. Shrinking them down should not be a problem as long as the device can withstand the rigors of the military environment.

Kevin Harrington, account manager at iRobot, said the company’s robots marketed in the law enforcement community already have smaller, lighter laptop controllers.

“We will have a laptop solution for EOD robots as well,” he said.

A common controller is easier said than done, he suggested. Robots can be controlled from trucks, helicopters, or by dismounted troops. All these are different situations. “It’s not just a common box with a joystick. There’s much more to it,” Harrington said.

Meanwhile, work continues to improve the capabilities of the robots being used today. Brezina said the new family of robots will not be fielded until 2013, so Talons and Packbots will be in use for another five years.

One key improvement has been the controllers, which resemble those of the Sony PlayStation video games.

Reinhard said conditions in the vehicles EOD technicians operate from are hot and cramped. Temperatures inside the vehicles can rise to 100 degrees even with the air conditioning on. Normally, the three-man crew consists of a driver, a team leader and the robot operator.

The operator usually has his nose up against the view screen, which makes it hard for the team leader to look over his shoulder. The new controller allows them to plug into a USB port and sit back so the other members of the team can see the screen.

It is also an intuitive system for those who grew up playing video games, said Harrington.

It takes less than 10 minutes to learn to drive the robot regardless of any video game experience, he said. “All you need is two thumbs and a couple fingers for this.”

Both the Talons and the Packbots have the new PlayStation-like controller.

Reinhard said the game controllers were well received. “Soldiers play a lot of games when they’re not working. It was very intuitive for them.”

Nevertheless, it is still hard to see what they are doing, he added. Simple tasks that would take them two to three minutes to accomplish if they were standing next to the bomb can take 20 to 30 minutes using a robot.

“They can do amazing things with the robots, but it could be a lot better,” he said.

He would like to see a camera system that is linked to sensors on the operator’s head so it swivels when he swivels. A glove worn on the hand similarly linked to the robot’s manipulator arm would also help the operator feel as if he is on the scene.

When he reaches to disconnect the wire with the glove, the manipulator acts in his place. And he should feel as much pressure as the robot’s claw.

The Advanced Physics Laboratory believes it has a solution in its high dexterity robotics program. The lab has built prosthetic arms for wounded veterans. They resemble the bionic appendages of the Six Million Dollar Man television show.

This technology can be used for bomb disposal robots, said the lab’s Matthew Kozlowski. The lab, under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program, has already developed a glove that is connected to the arm. The artificial arm has five fingers and carries out human-like motions. One prototype can lift 40 pounds and can grip a pencil.

What the operators are seeing on the screen can also be improved, said Roger Anderson, program manager at Autonomous Solutions Inc. His company is in the first year of a three-year Navy development contract to create 3-D like images.

The objective is to give the operator as much information about the bomb as possible.

“In comparison to the manipulator or the robot arm, how far away am I from this object?” Taking data from one camera, the computer is already creating images that show more of the bomb than operators can see now on their 2-D screens, he said.

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Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Improvised Explosive Devices, Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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