Ground Robots Coming of Age With Expanding Missions

By Grace V. Jean
Bomb disposal technicians embedded with special operations forces increasingly are using their ground robots to help conduct raids and accomplish missions beyond their assigned seek-and-destroy duties. Their resourcefulness is spreading to their peers throughout the conventional forces as well.

As troops apply explosive ordnance disposal robots to more tasks, researchers and engineers are advancing artificial intelligence behavior algorithms, creating new controllers and developing kits to automate manned platforms. Their efforts will make it possible for robots to sneak up autonomously on sentry-guarded facilities to conduct reconnaissance; for ground systems to work collaboratively with unmanned aircraft to help protect military bases and outposts; and for heavy-lifting equipment to become semi-autonomous so that humans can remotely clean up contaminated areas following disasters.

Most autonomous systems navigate by detecting the world using cameras, radar and other sensors. To get to a door, for example, robots typically chart paths that take them as far away from obstacles as possible. But to maneuver covertly, the vehicles must traverse closer to obstacles and roll along a wall or a tree line in order to reduce their visibility to potential threats, said Brian Satterfield, lead member of the engineering staff for the covert robotics research program at Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories.

Academic researchers previously developed algorithms for covert movement in autonomous vehicles. But if the robot were to be spotted by someone as it employed those processes, it would have no capability to move and hide from the potential threat, he said. The Lockheed Martin engineers developed a method for the robot to quickly ascertain good hiding locations with options for escaping should detection occur.

“Without the escapability algorithm, you wind up picking locations like a phone booth,” Satterfield said. “Sentries would come walking in and would be able to see you for a long time. Whereas with escapability, you can run and hide and the sentry sees you for a short amount of time,” if at all.  

Detecting sentries and other potential threats required the development of a “time delay of arrival” algorithm to pinpoint the source of a sound, such as approaching footsteps. On board a small, wheeled vehicle made by Active Media Robotics, Lockheed engineers placed a microphone array on four masts. Any noise would hit one mast before it triggered all the others. That time delay can be processed and used to calculate the approximate location of the threat, he said.

Lockheed engineers demonstrated their work last summer at a warehouse parking lot near their lab in Cherry Hill, N.J. In a video of the nighttime demonstration, the robot stealthily approached the target building. When it heard the footsteps of a guard coming around the corner, it retreated and hid behind a dumpster that it had detected not long before.

The small robots being employed by military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams have proven their utility in combat zones. But they are just the beginning of the robotics revolution, experts said.

“I think the real growth in ground robotics won’t be in EOD, but in infantry and dismounted operations using different sensors and end affecters,” said Bob Quinn, vice president of unmanned systems at QinetiQ North America. “I think you’re going to see integrated base security with unmanned systems — air and ground — working together.”

The trend also will include larger ground robotic systems. The Army and Marine Corps are exploring their options in unmanned vehicles capable of carrying troops’ gear and supplies like robotic mules. Units are employing mine detectors and ground penetrating radars that have been added onto commercial construction equipment that they operate using game controllers and other devices.

In Fukushima, Japan, efforts are still ongoing to clean up debris following the March 11 tsunami and subsequent nuclear plant explosions. Traditional heavy earth-moving equipment have gone unmanned with the help of appliqué robotic kits made by QinetiQ, which teamed up with Bobcat Co. to donate the remotely operated systems to the Japanese. With suites of cameras and other sensors mounted onto the skid steer loaders, the Japanese workers can operate the equipment using Xbox game controllers.

“I think there’s tremendous value for money when you’re taking a piece of manned construction equipment and using it in the unmanned mode to provide standoff separation,” said Quinn. “You can roboticize … a loader like the Bobcat much less expensively than a specially-built small robot.”  

The ability of multiple robots working as teams also was highlighted in the Fukushima operation. Companies like QinetiQ also are demonstrating to military leaders the concept of multiple-sized robots collaborating in teams directed by troops using tactical robotic controllers. From a single device, troops can operate the small hand-launched aircraft made by Aerovironment and Honeywell, along with ground robots.

“We think these hand-launched UAVs, tied to small robots and the robotic kits on heavier equipment is a real trend,” said Quinn. “But you need picture-in-picture, an ability for the operators of the ground robots to have a view from the sky as well as a view from the ground, but from a different view of attack.”

The days of working with only a single robot are over, he added. It’s really about multi-robot air-ground operations, he said.

“It’s an exciting time for ground robots as they get more integrated into operations. They never would have become integrated into these operations had EOD not used them to such great effect over the last 10 years,” Quinn said.  

Topics: Bomb and Warhead

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