Army Seeks Robots That Are Interoperable With Allies

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
From disarming improvised explosive devices to scoping out buildings before troops arrive, unmanned ground vehicles have played an integral role in warfare over the last decade. U.S. forces and NATO allies are now seeking to collaboratively develop UGVs.

Representatives from the U.S. Army, NATO, Germany and Turkey came together at the Maneuver Battle Lab (MBL) at Fort Benning, Ga., in July to test interoperability standards on several unmanned ground systems.

The testing was meant to gauge interoperability capabilities the U.S. fleet of UGVs and those of NATO partners and discern where gaps may be, said Jim Parker, associate director for ground vehicle robotics at the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, Mich.

Easily sharing unmanned ground vehicles, or different payloads and sensors such as robotic arms, with NATO allies is critical, Parker said.

“As we’ve seen over the last decade-plus, we’ve always worked closely with our NATO allies,” said Parker.

All parties agreed that possessing a common maneuver control and information that is provided by UGVs are critical capabilities, he said.

Conducted at the McKenna Urban Operations Complex, the lab is in a unique position to oversee experiments and draw on research from academia, industry and the military, said Maj. James Farrer, executive officer for the MBL and a British exchange officer.

“[The] primary role is providing experimentation for emerging ideas,” said Farrer. “The battle lab has at its core … access to a lot of real estate and is really useful for this type of experimentation.”

While testing has been going on for three years within the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO), the meeting was the first time foreign military representatives participated, Parker said.

UGVs and payloads used during the testing included a Talon IV from the United States, a Kaplan unmanned ground vehicle from Turkey and a controller from Germany, said Paul Bounker, a TARDEC senior computer engineer who focuses on unmanned ground systems and interoperability.

The Talon was modified to follow interoperability standards so foreign participants could control the vehicle with their own devices, he said.

While results of the testing were not immediately available, some technological gaps were discovered, Parker said. For example, developers wanted a common operating picture that would show where the robotic systems were at all times, Parker said. Developers also indicated they wanted greater flexibility in switching controllers.

“That’s something we didn’t plan on. We kind of planned on … [having] one controller controlling the robot for a whole mission, and then we’d switch it up. They [indicated they] would like to switch up potentially ... on the fly,” said Parker.

Interoperability is the military’s way of meeting the Defense Department’s Better Buying Power 2.0 policy, which calls for smart acquisition policies and procedures to save money, said Mark Mazzara, the team lead for systems engineering and interoperability at RSJPO.

“We’re interested in interoperability because our current systems for the last 10 years or so have all been bought commercial, off-the-shelf and many of the systems ... [are] based on proprietary architectures,” he said.

Proprietary data can be limiting, as a soldier often cannot take one controller and manipulate robots from other countries, he said.

Industry must step up and create systems that can be used with a variety of payloads and systems, said Parker. There needs to be a standardization among all upcoming systems that allows the United States and NATO to easily swap controllers and work with the robots they have on hand, he added.

RSJPO, which collects interoperability profiles that define interfaces, hardware and software platforms for UGVs, is currently in the midst of publishing new guidelines to be released in the coming months, Mazzara said.

“We see this as a way to reduce lifecycle costs based on improving the industrial base and getting industry to kind of do some of the R&D on their own to meet our standards,” said Mazzara.

When it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles, NATO currently has in place a standardization agreement, which establishes policies and procedures for the development and procurement of future systems. NATO is considering whether such agreements for unmanned ground systems would be useful, Bounker said.

“The advantage of this ... is that it would allow a U.S. operator, for instance, to control a German robot or a Turkish robot ... without having to learn how to use their controller,” said Bounker, who also leads a NATO team on interoperability. “It gives combatant commanders in the field a lot more flexibility in terms of how they can match up personnel with assets.”

The type of standardization that would come with a formal agreement would also allow for the swapping of key payloads, such as robotic arms, he said.

Based on studies, there are a number of technological improvements that are needed for better interoperability, Bounker said. Increasing radio control range, improving the ability of robots to open doors and increasing autonomy are all items industry should explore, he added.

While much of the experiments focused on the tactical applications of unmanned ground vehicles, interoperability is also important for peacekeeping missions, Bounker said.

During the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, interoperable UGVs could have been a big help in enhancing the safety of workers and cutting cleanup costs, he said.

“Potentially, we could have gotten over one of our robots, or arms, and moved water, for instance … and filled the reactors,” said Bounker. “It would have been something that could have potentially been done a lot better with an unmanned ground vehicle and it [interoperability] would allow us to get robots there much easier [and] much faster.”

In terms of a timeline for across-the-board interoperable UGVs, Bounker stressed that the project is still in its infancy. Much work still needs to be done, but the United States and its NATO allies are beginning to recognize the importance of putting in interoperability from the start, rather than attempting to add it to an already fielded system later on, he said.

Financing for unmanned ground vehicles for the Army and Marine Corps is up in the air, Mazzara said.

“Right now, our future funding situation is uncertain and volatile, it’s kind of changing on a week-to-week basis, in terms of what we’re doing with our fielded systems, the conflict drawdown and things like that,” said Mazzara.

But despite smaller budgets, RSJPO recently awarded iRobot a $30 million indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract for its PackBot FasTac robotic system, said Frank Wilson, iRobot’s senior vice president and general manager for defense and security.

Already, the Army has made an initial order for $3 million worth of spare parts, Wilson said. The contract would largely fulfill spare part orders, but new vehicles are not out of the question, Wilson told National Defense.

The multi-million dollar order, which has until 2017 to be fulfilled, shows the Army’s commitment to UGVs and the proven utility they have on the battlefield, he said.

PackBot FastTacs have been used on the battlefield to disarm improvised explosive devices as well as to search buildings and can be fitted with a number of payloads including chemical detection sensors, Wilson said. The company is also supportive of interoperability efforts, and continues to work on the technology, he added.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, International, Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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