Reconnaissance Robots’ Place on Battlefields Still Unsettled

By Stew Magnuson

The fact that soldiers and Marines want small robots to perform reconnaissance and surveillance in battle zones — particularly urban environments where they can be used to peer into buildings and around corners — has been established.

There have been numerous urgent requirements coming from the field asking for them, and thousands of units have made their way to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But a permanent spot for the machines has not yet been engraved in stone.

Tactics, techniques and procedures for using them have been invented on the fly. The robots have all been commercial-off-the-shelf products that have performed well, but left the military with large logistics bills.

Doctrine that would allow the two ground services to formally make them standard pieces of equipment and programs of record has not been forthcoming.

“There are tasks that soldiers won’t do right now without their robots,” said Lt. Col. Stuart Hatfield, soldier systems and unmanned ground systems branch chief, Army G-8. Cave and tunnel reconnaissance is one example. “A soldier doesn’t want to grab a pistol and a flashlight and be back in Vietnam and get down in there and be a tunnel rat. They would rather send a robot.”

Checkpoint security and explosive ordnance disposal are other dirty and dangerous jobs troops would rather perform with a robot, he said.

It is not as if the benefits of using robots for reconnaissance are a new idea. They were once part of the Army’s plans a decade ago when it kicked off the now-defunct Future Combat Systems program. FCS was canceled in 2009 but its small unmanned autonomous ground vehicle, or SUGV, program survived. The $500 million program was ultimately canceled in 2011. It was envisioned as a reconnaissance robot to accompany small units.

Hatfield said the Army, along with the Marine Corps, has a desire to field a joint, multi-mission ground robot similar to SUGV, but so far they are only aspirations. He is waiting for requirements for a ground robot to come from the Army Training and Doctrine Command. When he has those documents in hand, then he can go out and compete with other Army programs for funding. However, he did not anticipate any money for such a program until the 2016 to 2020 budget cycle.

The Army has spent $730 million on ground robots, which were all pushed into the field through urgent need statements and rapid fielding initiatives. This all came from overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding.

“As everyone knows, that OCO funding is going away as we pull out of contingency operations. How do we transition those [robots] into programs of record?” Hatfield asked.
Current funding streams are for bomb disposal robots only.

“With the loss of the SUGV, we don’t currently have a soldier system, but we do want to continue developing programs of record for that and do recon/surveillance, lighten the soldier load and continue to breech and clear,” he said.

Lt. Col. Michael Hixson, a combat engineer and chief information officer at Marine Corps unmanned ground systems, said the Army and Marine Corps intended to work together to build a common chassis and operating systems that will allow the robot to do different missions depending on the circumstances.

“You have the same chassis when you put a reconnaissance payload on there to support the maneuver forces; then you pull that off and put a chemical sensor on there or an engineer payload,” he said at the conference.

“Modularity is the goal,” Hatfield said.

Like the Army, the Corps will have to put these aspirations off until the end of the current budget cycle, or beyond, for any long-term dedicated programs, Hixson said.

Hatfield said, in many respects, the services and troops on the ground have been spoiled by the rapid fielding initiatives that sped the robots into the field. Now, acquisition personnel are forced to return to the old procurement processes and cycles that are ill suited for robotics.

Rapidly advancing technology is one of the challenges the two services have always had with robotics, he added. “How do you use that [acquisition] system — that is made to build battleships and tanks and bombers and airplanes — to build a system that could be obsolete before you get the first one fielded?” he asked.

Help for robot manufacturers may come in a pot of money that will become available to acquire new robots, software and components beginning in 2015.

The Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., and the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO) will be authorized to buy technologies from vendors that can be tested in the field.

Through this process, any military organization can request that the center of excellence and RSJPO procure a robot, or a subsystem, with these dedicated funds and put them in the hands of battle labs so they can inform programs of record.

Industry has told the Army: “You’re killing us with demonstrations and robotic rodeos and all these things where there was no return on investment,” Hatfield said. This will lead to contracts and reduce the research, development, test and evaluation costs for vendors, he said.

The goal is to get to where the services are not buying “small, niche systems,” but buying big quantities as part of programs of record, he said.

To do so, they will have to manage the capability and cost thresholds, he said.

“We want them to be expendable because they are unmanned, but we want them to be survivable because we spend a lot of money getting them out there. You got to have that balance,” he added.

Representatives of two of the major suppliers of ground robots to the military said despite the apparent procurement pause, they are optimistic about the technology’s permanent place in ground forces.

Mark Belanger, director of Department of Defense robotic products at iRobot, said, “People are taking a deep breath now and working on their tactics, techniques and procedures and developing their new concepts of operation. And most of those guys are interested in dismounted, small robots,” he said.

Charles E. Dean, director of business development, unmanned systems group, land division at QinetiQ North America, said, there are still plenty of business opportunities for robot manufacturers even though there aren’t any immediate plans to integrate them into the force. 

“They are on a pathway toward becoming programs of record,” he said, referring to recon robots, larger robotic mules that can haul heavy loads and other concepts.

Meanwhile, an effort to field small, throwable reconnaissance robots in the waning months of the Afghan conflict — which could provide examples of how they can be used in combat — has been mired in controversy and stymied by a series of protests by a vendor.

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, responding to requests from combatant commanders in Afghanistan in 2012, kicked off the ultra-light recon robot program in order to quickly field a robot and controller small and light enough to fit in a backpack for dismounted operations.

It chose three manufacturers, iRobot, QinetiQ and MacroUSA, to produce 100 robots each to send to Afghanistan, where troops would test them out in battle zones.

After the field tests and evaluations were complete in late 2012, JIEDDO asked QinetiQ to produce small robotic arms for its Dragon Runner 10.

MacroUSA was the only one of three of the entrants to have a robotic arm, and it filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. It accused JIEDDO of “technical leveling.” In other words, liking a feature on one piece of equipment, but going out to ask a favored manufacturer to duplicate it.

JIEDDO quickly withdrew the arm contract before the GAO could render a verdict.

Earlier this year, MacroUSA filed a second and third protest after RSJPO abruptly gave two sole source contracts to iRobot and QinetiQ to produce the ultralight robots without proper notices.
MacroUSA prevailed in that protest as well and the Army was forced to pay for the company’s legal bills, and cancel the contracts.

As of press time, neither RSJPO nor JIEDDO had re-released a request for proposals for the program.

MacroUSA President Robert Ramos said after prevailing in three protests the company showed that: “Our assumptions that we had all along were right, that we never got a fair opportunity, that we never got evaluated, that they never had any intention of buying our systems,” Ramos said. “I feel there is a lot of favoritism,” he added.

A JIEDDO spokesman denied the accusations.

MacroUSA filed a fourth protest with GAO over JIEDDO’s effort to acquire an ultralight robot with a manipulator arm for the EOD community. The company said the request for proposal documents simply described the QinetiQ Dragon Runner 10 system, to the detriment of other companies.

JIEDDO also withdrew the request before GAO had a chance to rule on the protest.
There are currently no RFPs for an ultralight robot.

Dean said MacroUSA’s assertion it was the only vendor that had an arm certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology wasn’t true. QinetiQ had a NIST-certified modular arm on its Dragon Runner 10.

“The military had seen our arm on the Dragon Runner 10 from the get-go,” he said.

“We’re not sure which way the government is heading in the next few months early into their new fiscal year. But we are positive if there remains a need for such a solution … then they will find a way,” Dean said.

iRobot’s Belanger said, “We certainly respect the Army and the GAO’s decision. We have gotten great feedback from the theater from the ones that we have shipped to date,” he said, noting that while the sole source contracts for additional robots had been terminated, the 300 systems sent to Afghanistan for evaluations remain there and are being used in operations.

“We felt we were fairly awarded a sole source when we got it,” he added.

Topics: C4ISR, Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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