Ground Troops Demanding Smaller Robotic Systems

By Stew Magnuson

The message from combatant commanders has been clear: Send more robotic systems — and the smaller the better.

Whether they are in the air or on the ground, small robots are increasingly becoming a vital part of a platoon’s tactics, techniques and procedures.

“No commander worth his salt should ever, ever go on a mission without one of these things flying above their convoy, out ahead, looking for suspicious activity and protecting their soldiers,” Maj. Jeffrey Poquette, assistant product manager of the Army small unmanned aerial systems office, said in a press briefing of the hand-launched Puma and Raven aerial drones.

Meanwhile, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization has put out a call for small ground reconnaissance robots that can be carried in a backpack and are small enough for a soldier or Marine to toss into a window. JIEDDO wants upwards of 4,000 to send to Afghanistan and has tapped four manufacturers to provide them for in-theater assessments.

Most of these robots have two things in common: they are intended to accompany troops on foot patrols, and therefore must be small enough to carry, and — with the exception of the Raven unmanned aircraft system — they have bypassed the traditional acquisition process and been fielded at the request of battlefield commanders under urgent needs statements.

One such small UAV was the Puma, a 13-pound aircraft with a 9-foot wingspan that doesn’t require an auxiliary system to launch, and can be carried in a backpack. Soldiers on foot patrols are using them for better situational awareness, particularly in Afghanistan where a typical village is a collection of compounds surrounded by 10-foot high adobe walls. 

“It is basically like putting up a periscope. You can put one of these up in a moment’s notice,” Poquette said. “The advantage is incalculable.”

The Puma has longer endurance and range compared to the Raven, and has a gimbaled payload, so the electro-optical and infrared sensors can scan around as it flies. The Raven has a fixed camera, but is undergoing upgrades that will add a gimbaled camera.

The Puma also has an all-weather capability.

“The ability to call up this kind of ISR without having to ask for it from higher echelons is tremendous,” Poquette said.

“To have that steerable payload on what was normally a fixed camera required a lot more skill to fly. It is now going to reduce the burden quite a bit on the operator, and they just can’t wait to have that capability,” Poquette added.

Furthermore, troops are finding different ways to employ the system. For example, the infrared camera would normally be used for night operations, but small units are using its sensor to fly ahead and look for subtle changes in the earth. Disturbed dirt may indicate that someone has planted a bomb.

Now commanders are asking for something that can hover and stare at a target. The Army and Marine Corps have a joint requirement for mini-helicopters that could be carried into the field by ground troops, according to Col. Grant A. Webb, Army Training and Doctrine Command capability manager for unmanned aerial systems.

It will have to be small enough for a soldier or Marine to carry in his backpack, and easy to deploy, he said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International conference in Las Vegas. “It has to be launched when the soldier is prone. There are some situations when you don’t want the soldier standing up launching a Raven or a Puma,” he said.

A capability production document, which specifies the performance parameters the service is looking for, is currently under review by a three-star general, and Webb is trying to push that through in order to field the aircraft as soon as possible.

Poquette asked: What can we do to make these systems better, more user friendly and less of a burden? To start, there will be different payloads. Some could serve as communications relay points so soldiers can transmit their messages farther. They could also carry biological, chemical or radiological detectors, he said.

“There are a slew of capabilities that we know will be the future of small UAS,” he said.

Commanders are also demanding smaller ground robots that forces can carry with them to gain better situational awareness in spots where the aerial systems can’t see. The typical scenario is a building where insurgents may be hiding.

JIEDDO’s ultra light recon robot program is looking for a rugged small robot that could be tossed into a window or through a door so soldiers or Marines can see if anyone is lurking inside.

“If you look at the roadmaps, the direction the military is going is man-packable robots,” said Chris Vitter, vice president of Macro USA, one of the four manufacturers that is participating in the recon robot program. JIEDDO purchased 100 robots from each manufacturer and sent them to troops in the field to evaluate earlier this year.

The office of the secretary of defense’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: FY2011-2036 identified 22 different models of ground robots in the U.S. military inventory. All but two were intended for explosive ordnance disposal teams, mine neutralization or route clearance missions. Some of these systems have served dual purposes as gatherers of surveillance and reconnaissance, but most were intended to contribute to the war against roadside bombs. Some weigh more than 100 pounds.

The JIEDDO program is looking for a relatively simple robot with a camera that an infantryman can carry.

Each of the companies have different solutions, although representatives said this may not be a winner-takes-all competition. JIEDDO may select more than one robot.

“We settled at 5 pounds as a sweet spot as far as maneuverability,” said Tim Trainer, vice president of programs at iRobot, which is offering FirstLook. It has shock-absorbing wheels and the electronics are caged in an aluminum shell. The cameras are recessed. It has a pair of flippers to right itself if it lands upside down, and to help it climb stairs.

Macro USA has the 7-pound Armadillo, which has the option of using tracks for more rugged environments such as sandy and rocky areas. A user switches in shock-absorbing wheels for more urban terrain, and when he wants to throw it. It has an optional arm that can do some manipulation, but can’t be used if the soldier is tossing it, Vitter said.

The camera image flips depending on which side it lands on, meaning it doesn’t need to right itself. Along with a small arm, any number of payloads can be attached, such as chemical sensors or a pan-tilt camera, he said.

QinetiQ North America has sent its Dragon Runner 10, which also has an invertible view screen, and the option of adding a manipulator arm. A pitchable camera comes standard. Of the four entrants, it weighs the most at 10 pounds.

“It is a really nice balance between size, weight and capability,” said Chris Langford, program manager of the Dragon Runner family of robots.

“There are other robots that are a lot smaller, maybe in a different class because they are so small, but we really feel the size and weight give it a lot of capabilities.”

If there were an incumbent in the competition, it would have to be Recon Robotics with its 1.2 pound Recon Scout XT throwbot. It has already sold 1,400 of its tiny two-wheeled entrant to a variety of U.S. military customers, and 3,600 total to police departments and other militaries.
Ernest Langdon, director of U.S. military programs for the company, didn’t mince words when speaking of the competition.

Those aren’t really throwable robots, he maintained.

“A lot of people say theirs is throwable. Five pounds is not really throwable. Footballs are not five pounds. Baseballs are not. When the military is talking about throwable, [it is] talking about grenades. And grenades are measured in weight by grams,” he said.

There are numerous studies that show that accuracy goes down dramatically the more weight is added, he said.

Because the system only weighs 3.3 pounds including its controller, ground troops are willing to carry it, he said.

The operational assessments are expected to continue until the end of the year.

“We’re anxious to hear how they are doing,” said Langford.

Photo Credit: iRobot

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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