Robot-Makers Ponder Next Moves as Wars Wind Down
The end of the nearly nine-year war closed one chapter for a technology that came into its own during the conflict. As improvised explosive devices became a scourge and leading killer of coalition forces and civilians, the military rushed into the theater explosive ordnance disposal robots that proved to be invaluable lifesaving tools.
But what’s next?
The technology is still being used in Afghanistan, although that conflict is scheduled to wind down in the next few years.
Executives at the three major suppliers of military robots — iRobot, QinetiQ North America and Remotec — believe that there are still opportunities out there despite the anticipated drawdown, a lack of permanent programs and a Defense Department budget outlook that many have called “grim.”
“There continues to be worldwide demand for this capability,” said Ed Godere, senior vice president for unmanned systems at QinetiQ. “As we see things winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of IEDs as the weapon of choice by insurgents around the world is becoming more prevalent.”
There are other applications besides route clearance and explosive ordnance disposal, robotics executives told National Defense. In the civilian world, hazardous-material disposal and police special weapons and tactics operations along with perimeter security are a few. In the defense realm, reconnaissance and logistics robots are other ways in which they are being used.
The problem is that there are currently few programs of record.
The Navy, the executive agent in charge of developing and procuring bomb disposal robots for all four services, prior to the Iraq War had fielded one large EOD robot: the remote ordnance neutralization system or RONS, which was developed in the 1990s by Remotec, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. These are 700-pound-plus machines that were mostly envisioned for base security and needed to be towed by a vehicle. The Navy had acquired 270 of them, and upgrades were made during the Iraq war. Their size made them ideal for removing large objects such as artillery shells from the field.
As roadside bombs became the Iraqi insurgents’ weapon of choice, EOD teams sent out urgent requests for robots that were lighter and could be transported in the back of a Humvee. Three companies quickly responded with off-the-shelf machines: iRobot, Foster-Miller and Vanguard-Allen.
The Vanguard machines’ reliability were called into question, and quickly disappeared from the battlefield. The Foster-Miller Talon and the iRobot PackBot became the EOD specialists’ primary tools. QinetiQ eventually acquired Foster-Miller.
The first robots were basically prototypes. There were issues with them breaking down, said Joe Dyer, chief operating officer at iRobot.
One of the most important developments of the Iraq war was that ground robots eventually proved themselves to be “robust pieces of military equipment with reliability,” he said. That wasn’t the case at the outset. But as the following iterations made their way into the field, they became more durable. Manufacturers also made improvements to controllers, communications links, chassis and other facets.
Another watershed moment came when the infantry adapted them for reconnaissance missions, Dyer said. Soldiers want robots to look around the corners of buildings or inside them before they stick out their heads. As these EOD robots were being fielded, the now defunct Army modernization program, the Future Combat Systems, was working on a ground recon robot. It is one of the few technologies that survived that program’s cancelation, Dyer said.
That infantry program, an Air Force range/runway clearance robot, and the Navy’s effort to build a family of EOD robots to replace the ones rushed into the field are about the only programs of record executives see on the horizon.
Godere agreed with Dyer that the EOD robot’s proven durability has prompted the military to look at other applications.
“As they learn that, they start looking at other things that a robot can be used for on the battlefield,” he said.
So-called robotic mules are one such need. The Army is currently fielding unmanned logistics vehicles that can help dismounted troops traveling in Afghanistan’s rough terrain.
A Lockheed Martin-built squad mission support system, a six-wheeled semi-autonomous vehicle weighing 3,800 pounds, has been sent to the field to help troops haul loads in that nation. Other manufacturers such as John Deere, Remotec and QinetiQ are offering logistics robots.
Whether these make the transition to programs of record once that conflict wraps up remains to be seen.
The Iraq War also marked a first when a M249 light machine gun was married to a Talon. In 2007, the Army — responding to urgent requests from battlefield commanders — sent a handful of the armed robots to Iraq. The Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center developed the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, or SWORDS. Despite the fanfare surrounding this historic event, SWORDS’ 15-minutes of fame came to an end quickly. Senior military leaders were nervous about sending armed robots into war zones, even though a human operator was always in the decision-making loop of when to fire or not fire. It was reported that they were used sparingly in fixed positions, and did not shoot on the move as envisioned.
The Marines so far have shown the most interest in moving armed ground robot programs forward, according to executives. But there are still tactics, techniques and procedures to work out, and perhaps the biggest hurdle of all: cultural acceptance.
The Army is setting up a center for unmanned systems at Fort Benning, Ga., in order to start writing requirements for some of these potential applications.
“That’s a big change,” Godere said. Whether those programs eventually get funding is “anybody’s guess at this point,” he added.
Meanwhile, robot manufacturers don’t necessarily have to rely on the military for business.
About 60 percent of Remotec’s business is in the first responder market, said the company’s president, Mike Knopp.
“We’re waiting for our competition to start pushing into our civil-first responder markets. We expect some of that,” he said. There are indications that some of the excess military robots such as RONS will be donated to first responders, he said. These agencies will want upgrades.
The community can use the lull between conflicts to perfect some to the technologies, he said.
“We are trying to advance our product and make greater inroads into the military. While things continue to evolve technologically, there are still some basic needs in theater that will remain there for a long time,” Knopp said.
For example, operators still want better control mechanisms. Not all IEDs are created equally and the situations they are found in vary. So while there is a focus on autonomy, and that will continue to evolve, operators still want to improve the manipulation of objects.
Remotec is building the chassis for the Navy’s next-generation bomb disposal robot program, the advanced EOD robot system.
The family of robots is broken into three increments. Increment one, a backpackable robot, will be fielded beginning in 2014. It will replace the iRobot 310 small unmanned ground vehicle. Increment two, the manual transportable robot intended to replace the iRobot MK 1 PackBot and QinetiQ MK 2 Talon, will start deliveries in 2017. Increment three, the largest robot, will replace the 700-pound RONS robots.
Rather than awarding the contract to one winner, the Navy wants an interchangeable system where manufacturers contribute various components such as the chassis, manipulators, navigation, communications and so on. A manufacturer would eventually be chosen to integrate all the modules.
Meanwhile, there are still urgent needs coming from Afghanistan that are being funded by the Joint IED Defeat Organization. The Taliban’s employment of hard-to-detect pressure-plate explosives, basically rudimentary landmines, has JIEDDO scrambling to field inexpensive, disposable robots that can set them off before soldiers step on them. QinetiQ is also working on a “throwbot” for the organization that can be tossed into a building for reconnaissance, Godere said.
Dyer said industry will continue to push the technology forward. All three companies invest their own dollars in research and development.
This will result in “smarter,” more autonomous robots over the next few years, Dyer predicted.
Currently, one operator controls one robot. As budgets shrink, that paradigm will have to change.
“The key will be having robots do something they have not done up to this time, and that is to reduce personnel costs,” Dyer said.
“So much of our robotics research is on the left side of the Valley of Death,” he said, referring to the term used for technologies that work well in laboratories but can’t make the transition to products.
Small Business Innovation Research robotics programs are well funded, as are many academic R&D programs, he said. But as far as programs of record and the work necessary to build the kind of success in robotics that has been seen in aerospace and information technology industries?
“No, it’s not there,” Dyer said.
iRobot has sold millions of its Roomba vacuuming drones in the consumer market. It is spending its own research and development dollars for hospital robots, and to extend independent living for the infirm. Its unmanned underwater group is selling environmental sampling and counter-mine robots.
Remotec’s Knopp said there is a slowly growing market in the chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear detection field. First responders want to be able to send robots into dangerous areas with a suite of detection devices to scope out potentially hazardous areas.
“There are countless other security and civilian roles for robots,” Godere said.
QinetiQ has outfitted Bobcat bulldozers with robotic kits for route clearance missions in Afghanistan. That has other applications as well.
“You can start to see the day where a Bobcat could be used to cut a fire break in a forest fire,” he said.
But expanding into the first responder market is tough-going, as the market leader Remotec can attest. Unlike with the military, which buys in large quantities, robots must be sold to local and state first responders one jurisdiction at a time. The agencies mostly rely on federal grants, which can take up to two years to procure.
“There is a cycle there that makes doing business pretty difficult,” Knopp said.
And some of that funding is at risk as budgets shrink, he noted.
Dyer warned that U.S. companies are not the only player in the military and first responder robotics world. South Korea, Israel, Singapore, and China are just some of the nations investing heavily in the technology.
“They are powerfully interested for economic as well as military reasons,” Dyer said.
“Will we sustain our impressive progress in robots or is there risk that the old ways of doing business dominate the future and rob the resources necessary to make it an industry?” Dyer asked.
The answer to that in the current budget climate is still uncertain, he said.