Market for Ground Robots Poised for a Turnaround
The military market for unmanned ground vehicles has been sluggish since the U.S. pulled most of its troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Iraq and Afghanistan fueled the huge increase in overall demand” for ground robots during the last decade, said Larry Dickerson, a market analyst at Forecast International. “The drawdown of operations in both the countries did have an impact on overall production.”
But industry observers expect the market to pick up in the coming years as the Defense Department seeks new robots for a multitude of missions. The Pentagon has said it is interested in unmanned ground systems for: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; disaster response; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials detection; transport and logistics; and counter-mine and counter-improvised explosive device missions.
“Even though U.S. spending has kind of been reduced right now, it is expected to go up because they are looking at a very wide range of systems besides replacing the traditional DoD type of robots,” Dickerson said.
Tom Frost, senior vice president and general manager of the defense and security business unit at iRobot — a leading supplier of unmanned ground vehicles for the U.S. military — anticipates business improving.
“What we’re seeing now is a reversal of that [downward] trend — just the beginning of that reversal — and also the Army and Navy laying in long-term plans for the next generation of unmanned ground vehicles,” he said.
The Defense Department’s latest “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap,” a 25-year plan released in late 2013, anticipates a “gradual upward trend in 2016 and beyond” when it comes to the Pentagon’s funding and inventory for ground robots.
Forecast International predicts that the global market value for unmanned ground vehicles — among militaries and civilian agencies — will grow 477 percent over the next decade, from $69.9 million in 2015 to $403.6 million in 2024. Unit production is projected to double during that timeframe.
Pentagon spending on ground robots would soar even higher than projected if another major conflict erupted, experts said.
“Booms, at least in the defense budget, are linked to war,” said Peter Singer, a robotics expert at the New America Foundation. “If we get into a larger scale conflict … then most definitely” you would see a massive increase.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Army purchased more than 7,000 “non-standard equipment” robots through urgent operational needs statements and other emergency funding mechanisms, said Scott Davis, the Army’s program executive officer for combat support and combat service support.
The Army is now moving to establish more stable, long-term funding streams going forward.
“We’re going to transition to a number of programs of record to fulfill the capability needs of the services,” Davis said at a National Defense Industrial Association robotics conference in Washington, D.C., in April.
Requests for proposals will be issued in fiscal year 2016, and programs of record are expected to start being fielded in the 2019-2024 timeframe, he said.
One advanced system the Army and Marine Corps are evaluating as they move to create new programs of record is the Common Robotic System-Individual (CRS-I).
CRS-I is a joint project to field a lightweight, highly mobile, man-packable robot equipped with advanced sensors that could be employed remotely by dismounted infantry for: short-range ISR; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detection; and explosive device countermeasures.
The services want CRS-I to weigh less than 25 pounds.
“The … trend that I see with the DoD is a strong desire for lighter robots that can be deployed at lower levels down to the squad level sometimes. So they’re looking for lighter robots but still with high capability. And so that’s something that we keep our eye on” as we develop our products, Frost said.
Other emerging military requirements include the Squad Multi-Purpose Equipment Transport, which would carry gear for troops during dismounted operations, and automated convoys that use applique kits to turn manned vehicles into unmanned systems, Army and Marine Corps officials have said.
U.S. Special Operations Command hopes to field a robotic exoskeleton — known as the tactical advanced light operator suit or ‘Iron Man suit’ — within the next three years to protect and enhance the capabilities of commandos. Dickerson said companies stand to make a lot of money if their engineers can solve the power supply problem plaguing TALOS.
“A guy who can develop a battery that can give you the ability to run one of these systems for 50 hours in a row … but yet keep it to the point it’s only the size of a car battery is going to make a freaking fortune,” he said.
Looking out into the 2020s and 2030s, the military is interested in nanobots as well as humanoids that could serve alongside infantry squads in support roles during dismounted operations, Pentagon officials have said. The Navy has already developed a humanoid firefighting robot that could serve onboard ships.
As the market heats up, Dickerson anticipates that big firms will seek to acquire established robotics companies that are already well positioned with government customers.
“Probably what you’re going to see happening here is you’re going to see the large corporations getting involved in an area that they didn’t really see much interest in themselves,” he said.
He raised the possibility of someone buying iRobot, comparing the potential move to QinetiQ’s 2004 purchase of the defense contractor Foster-Miller, which opened up the military robotics market to QinetiQ.
“You’re seeing a lot of these major vehicle manufacturers saying, ‘Look, we can’t ignore this market because it’s coming up,’” he added.
Other countries will seek to acquire unmanned ground systems, creating opportunities for U.S. robotics companies that market their goods overseas, analysts said.
“People are saying, ‘Wow, the Americans have a lot of success with these systems. … Maybe this is something that we want,’” Dickerson said.
Foreign firms in allied countries will likely seek to partner with leading U.S. robotics businesses as they develop their own systems, he noted.
Google — the information technology behemoth that is developing a self-driving car — clearly sees robotics as a potentially lucrative market. Over the past two years, the company has acquired at least half a dozen robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, which had a strong relationship with the Defense Department.
But Google has not seemed eager to partner with the Pentagon since it withdrew its Schaft robot from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency robotics Grand Challenge competition. Schaft — which Google acquired when it bought Tokyo-based Schaft Inc. — won the trial round in late 2013 around the time that Google purchased the company. But it did not participate in the finals, which took place in June. By withdrawing, Google turned down funding that DARPA offered to contest participants.
When asked if Google had any intention to work with the Defense Department on robotics projects, a company spokesman told National Defense that the tech giant is in the “early days” of its robotics efforts and it would be premature to talk about specific plans.
Analysts don’t see Google positioning itself to become a major supplier to the Pentagon.
“I think it’s clear they’re not interested,” Singer said. “They’re not outright saying we would never work with the military ... but in terms of interest they’re looking at an entirely different marketplace.”
Google executives probably want to avoid the regulatory “hoops” involved with the DoD acquisition system, and they may see bigger profit margins elsewhere, he said.
“Boston Dynamics was enticing to them not because this is the way to crack the military market. It was enticing to them because there’s some really interesting work going on with robotics that could be applied to other parts of the business,” Singer said.
Dickerson doesn’t expect Google’s acquisition of robotics companies to hurt the Defense Department in the long run.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a factor for them because you’ve got companies out there that can provide some pretty advanced technologies,” he said, citing iRobot and QinetiQ as examples. “There’s always somebody” willing to sell to the military.
Singer said robotic developments in the civilian field, even if spearheaded by companies like Google, would likely help the Defense Department.
“As the technology moves into the civilian market, the number of buyers proliferate and the costs are driven down,” he said. “People can experiment more, do more things … and that opens up new opportunities” for the military.
He cited computing and video cameras as examples of civilian technologies that benefited the Pentagon when lower costs were coupled with technological advancements.
“That’s the pattern we’ve seen in so many other technologies and I anticipate it will happen here too,” he said.
He noted that the advent of self-driving cars and other autonomous systems in the civilian world could also make military personnel more comfortable with using those types of technologies.
Aside from enhancing the military’s capabilities and keeping troops out of harm’s way, the Pentagon is hoping that robots will make its force structure less costly and more efficient.
“[Unmanned] systems offer the opportunity for significant manpower savings or the opportunity to use the saved manpower in other critical tasks,” defense officials said in the robotics roadmap report.
Paul Scharre, director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, said cost savings would make ground robots attractive to service officials scrounging for modernization dollars in a budget-constrained environment.
“They can say, ‘Well, I can do this [task] with unmanned vehicles and I actually save a lot of money and I can buy and invest in other areas.’ Now that’s a pretty big selling point,” he said.
Experts see logistics and equipment maintenance as areas where future robots could help the Pentagon achieve savings.
“Because of the movies, we [as a society] focus on robots on the battlefield. But in fact most of the true need for robotics in the Department of Defense is in lowering the cost of the [support] tail,” Gill Pratt, a robotics program manager at DARPA, said in an interview.
Looking beyond support functions, military observers have raised the possibility of using armed ground robots in combat. Experts said the public shouldn’t expect to see “Terminators” roaming around the battlefield anytime soon.
“AI [artificial intelligence], despite all of the press, is not anywhere near that right now,” Pratt said.
Although the military has experimented with less sophisticated armed robots, there doesn’t seem to be much of a demand for that type of capability from the Defense Department, Frost said.
“Right now we don’t weaponize our robots and we haven’t seen a requirement from the military to do so,” he said.
Experts believe that armed ground robots will be employed in the future, even though there is some cultural resistance to that idea within the military and society at large.
“Will the Army eventually put a weapon on an unmanned vehicle? I think eventually it will happen [but] there’s not a great push in the Army to do that,” Scharre said.
The Defense Department’s current policy forbids the use of autonomous robots that make their own decisions about when to use lethal force, requiring human beings to always be in the decision-making loop.
“In terms of an autonomous weapon that would choose targets on its own and fire on its own, I don’t think the U.S. Army will go there,” Scharre said.
But Singer said Defense Department policies and views on autonomous killer robots could evolve along with the threat environment.
“We see in history certain things that are controversial, over time attitudes toward them change. And it’s because the technology might prove itself, it’s because the other guy is using it, or it’s because you’re in a very different context than you hoped for,” he said.
He cited the abandonment of restrictions on using submarines to sink enemy merchant ships during World War II as an example.
“Pearl Harbor happens [and] it took us five hours to order unrestricted submarine warfare. So something that we once considered anathema and horrible we essentially changed our mind [about] now that we’re losing and we’re pissed off,” he said.
“The way we think about the uses of technology is shaped by so many different factors. And to assume that … the way we think about the technology today will be that way tomorrow is folly,” he added.