A Base to Call Their Own? Army Considers Letting Robots Roam Freely

8/17/2011
By Stew Magnuson
The Army is considering designating a base as a place where autonomous robotic systems could operate freely, according to an industry insider.
The purpose would be to pile up as many operating hours as possible and resolve the "trust and confidence" issues that have prevented such systems from proliferating on battlefields, Bob Quinn,  vice president of unmanned systems at QinetiQ North America said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.
The idea is being pushed by Jim Overholt, senior research scientist for robotics at the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, Quinn said.
Currently, most battlefield ground robots are tele-operated, meaning they require someone to control the system from a stand-off distance. This method is labor intensive. Researchers have been developing software that would allow the machines to operate more freely, and take the workload off of troops.
Earlier in the conference, Maj. Gen. Walter R. Davis, deputy director and chief of staff of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said that in order for ground robots to spread beyond their traditional roles as explosive ordnance disposal tools, proponents would have to make a business case that they can save the military money by reducing the number of personnel needed on battlefields.
Autonomous ground robots also need to gain the trust of senior leaders, Quinn said. Referring to a truck company that was displaying an autonomous 16-ton vehicle at the conference, Quinn said most people would find it frightening to know that there was no driver behind the wheel.
If there were a base where robots could operate more freely, and more hours and data could be collected,  then some of these safety concerns could be addressed, Quinn said.
Robots on enclosed military bases is not without precedent. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2007 held the urban version of its Grand Challenge driverless vehicle competition on a shuttered Air Force base in California.
Davis said part of the cultural acceptance for robots will be the acknowledgment that accidents are going to happen. There could be injuries, or worse. How many such incidents can decision-makers tolerate?
"They will fail to properly function at some point," Davis said.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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