Robotic Mule Vendors Seek Opportunities Outside Military
Mechanized mules are at an advanced technology readiness level, and some have been used in war zones.
But with a slowdown in military spending and no formal requirements forthcoming, manufacturers are looking for customers outside of the armed forces.
Lockheed Martin is eying border patrol, perimeter security, mining, logging and construction markets for its robotic mule, said Myron Mills, the company’s squad mission support system (SMSS) program manager.
“We are certainly looking at the possibility of those types of mission sets for this system and being able to take the man out of the loop,” he said.
Robots are often applied to jobs that are dull, dirty and dangerous, and robots designed to autonomously carry gear for ground forces can be converted to other tasks, Mills said.
“The fundamental technology, the algorithms, sensors, computing, things that we have done so far will be very applicable to address some of those other markets,” he added.
John Deere introduced its M-Gator small utility vehicle in 1999 without a single specific market in mind. The company identified at least 10 different tasks users could perform with it. It went on to sell more than a half million of them, including to military customers.
In 2006, it created a robotic version, the R-Gator, in part to address the Army’s effort to lighten soldiers’ loads.
“When you make it autonomous, it is kind of up to your imagination what sort of missions it may or may not accomplish,” said Mark Bodwell, the company’s military vehicles manager.
Marc Raibert, founder and CEO of Boston Dynamics, said there are several possible applications for ground robots in the emergency response, disaster recovery, security, law enforcement and agriculture realms, basically “anywhere that is too dirty or dangerous for people to go.”
Boston Dymanics is most famous for its BigDog rough-terrain experimental robotic mule that walks on four legs. Unlike the other systems based on small vehicle chassis, BigDog stands two and a half feet tall, and actually resembles a mule. It moves at about 4 miles per hour and can carry 340 pounds.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and later the Army Research Laboratory have funded its development. Raibert has been working on four-legged robots that can move in difficult terrain since the 1980s.
BigDog is not ready for fielding. It is still too noisy for stealthy operations, and Boston Dynamics wants to increase its autonomy, according to company literature.
Although the military has contributed to its development, the company sees many opportunities in the commercial and public safety world, Raibert said in an email.
“If we had better robots available during the Fukushima accident it may have been easier and quicker to get things under control,” he said.
John Deere came to the military robotic mule market from a different path. The company first began looking into making its agricultural equipment autonomous in the 1990s. Farmers could save a great deal of time, fuel, and therefore money by employing precision farming techniques. Most fields are not perfect rectangles or squares, Bodwell pointed out. They are all sorts of odd shapes. Mapping a farm beforehand and letting the implement autonomously take the most efficient path instead of the farmer doing that himself saves fuel and allows him to apply pesticides and fertilizer more efficiently. It also plants seeds down to the exact centimeter.
After the M-Gator was introduced in 1999, the company began to look at applying some of the precision farming software to other platforms. The military’s need to lighten the load for ground troops was an obvious application, Bodwell said.
“We’re 176 years old, so we have been in a lot of different conflicts with the military,” he added.
The company’s first R-Gator sale to the military, however, was not for a mule, but for perimeter security. The Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego bought one to autonomously patrol an island.
Other R-Gators made it into military exercises in the United States where they showed off their ability to carry gear for troops.
The R-Gator has several modes. One is full autonomy, where it can either choose waypoints and make its way to a pre-determined destination, or follow a map. Those require the ability to do obstacle avoidance. It can do leader-follower operations, where it keeps up with soldiers. It can also be tele-operated, and if needed, a soldier can jump on and operate it manually.
The non-robotic M-Gators were already being used to carry gear in the field, Bodwell said.
“Every time you had a Gator, all the fighters would throw their gear in it before they took off. It automatically became a lighten-the-load design, whether we thought about it or not,” he said.
In exercises, the R-Gator showed that it could carry smaller explosive ordnance disposal robots, which weigh more than 100 pounds, into the field. The Gator would drop off the smaller machine, then depart to do perimeter security for its operators while the EOD robot was used to dismantle bombs.
“We’ve got a robot carrying robots because the war fighters can’t carry them,” he said.
Lockheed Martin’s SMSS robot began its life as a military vehicle. It had its roots in the now-defunct Future Combat Systems program. The Army had plans to field a larger autonomous robot to carry gear and weapons.
“It was a fairly large and capable machine, but the Army still saw the need for a smaller, less capable, less expensive machine to go specifically with the dismounts to carry their gear and other equipment,” said Mills.
While the larger robot went the way of the other canceled FCS vehicles, plans to field a smaller version remain.
The SMSS has actually made it into a battle zone. Four of them were deployed to Afghanistan from January to May 2012 for operational evaluations.
“They used the systems to carry about everything you could imagine,” Mills said. Fencing, construction for outposts, sandbags, water, meals ready to eat, demolition materials, ammunition and heavy weapons were among those items carried, he said. He didn’t know of any cases where it was used for casualty evacuation, although it does have a litter-carrying kit.
Like the R-Gator, it has autonomous, leader-follower, tele-operated and manual modes. For the latter, operators can get on the machine and use a joystick to steer.
Those real-world tests were meant to help the Army inform its requirements for a squad multipurpose equipment transport program, which the company hopes will kick off in the fiscal year 2016 timeframe.
“Things are slow right now,” so Lockheed Martin is also casting its eye to non-military markets.
“It is fairly straightforward to cross over to border patrol activities where you can offer long-range persistent surveillance in extremely remote, rugged areas,” Mills said.
The base platform could be used in agriculture, mining and construction, he added.
“We also see an easy crossover to fixed-site security where you can use a system like this to patrol a high-value, fixed site,” he said. Energy or water plants might be some examples.
There could also be applications in law enforcement during hostage situations, or serving warrants to dangerous criminals, he added.
Mills said Lockheed Martin is keeping a close eye on the driverless car movement.
“Sometimes it is very hard to figure out exactly where those guys are going and what it looks like, but it is certainly interesting. … I think we are going to see, one of these years down the road, an explosion in capability moving into the consumer segment,” he said.
Driver parking assistance, collision avoidance and other technologies are already widely available.
“How we play in that segment in the future kind of remains to be seen,” he added.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is still working on mission equipment packages and demonstrating the versatility and flexibility of the system for the Army.
Like unmanned aerial vehicles operated from bases halfway around the world, it mounted a communications-on-the-move system on one of the SMSS robots and had someone tele-operate it from hundreds of miles away.
“We are trying to address as many needs as we can see that the Army is going to have going forward, so when it is time to compete for a system like this, we will be able to offer the Army the best value,” he said.
Bodwell said the underlying technology for the R-Gator can be transferred to other platforms. Warehouse inventory, or any situation where someone needs to move objects from one place to another, or do resupply, are potential civilian applications.
Fire suppression, humanitarian supply, or disaster response are other applications, he added.
“You can take a vehicle of that size and send it into an area where either some of the smaller robots are too slow or they can’t carry the type of equipment that needs to go into a specific area,” Bodwell said.
Boston Dynamics’ Raibert said, “Fighting fires, both forest fires and in buildings, is a good target for ground robots. There are other forestry and agricultural applications where ground robots could make significant contributions.”