Ground Robot Programs Finally Getting Underway

By Stew Magnuson
A Roboteam technician boots up the company’s Probot squad support vehicle at its Gaithersburg, Maryland, headquarters.

Photo: Stew Magnuson

After years of stagnation, the market for U.S. military ground robots is set to grow as a handful of programs enter their final development stages. 

The Army is acquiring two new multi-purpose robots just as the Navy is finally proceeding with its long-delayed explosive ordnance disposal systems, officials said at a recent industry conference.

Meanwhile, the Army has put a much talked about robotic vehicle, designed to carry heavy loads for troops, in an accelerated acquisition program. 

The new wave of ground robots is intended to replace the approximately 7,000 commercial-off-the-shelf systems procured since the beginning of the Iraq War, Bryan McVeigh, force protection product manager at the Army program executive office for combat support and combat service support, said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International annual program review in Arlington, Virginia.

The near-term goals for the Army is to use such systems to lighten soldier loads, increase standoff distances from threats and to improve situational awareness, McVeigh said.

It has kicked off two programs of record: the common robotic system-individual (CRSI) and the man transportable robotic system (MTRS).

The CRSI will weigh between 25 to 30 pounds and is intended to give dismounted troops and explosive ordnance disposal teams a tool to see into risky places without exposing themselves. A request for proposals will be issued in the second quarter of fiscal year 2017 with a contract award expected in the first quarter of 2018, according to Shonneil Severns, the Army’s deputy product manager for unmanned ground systems.

The MTRS is intended to replace the thousands of medium-sized, off-the-shelf robots fielded over the past 15 years that are in the 130 to 165-pound range. Along with EOD applications, it will be designed to incorporate a variety of mission packages, including chemical and biological threat sensors. The RFP was expected by the end of this year with a contract award in the third quarter of 2017, Severns said. 

In addition, his office is working on a common controller that will guide both these robots as well as the Army’s two main, tactical unmanned aerial vehicles — the Puma and Raven.

“Just imagine if you had one common controller that you could use for all these platforms. Imagine how much you can save just in the logistics area alone,” Severns said.

As for the Navy, the advanced explosive ordnance disposal robotic system, or AEODRS, has three increments: one small 35-pound backpackable robot, a medium-sized one that can be carried in a truck and a large 750-pound towable system that can deal with large pieces of ordnance for route or runway clearance. The Navy is the executive agent for EOD technologies.

Navy Capt. Aaron Peters, program manager SEA 06-EXM, said, “There are multiple areas where industry can help out, with increment 1 and also with increment 2 and increment 3.”

The program was designed with modularity in mind so companies can compete for the five to nine modules on each system such as the chassis, manipulator, sensors, powerpack and so on. They must be able to easily integrate their devices into its common operating system. The concept calls for plug-and-play systems that can be upgraded as needed, or when new technologies come along. 

For example, the Navy would like to go from its single manipulator, to two manipulators, to highly dexterous ones that are as good as hands, Peters said. “That’s a little far off, but there are some highly dexterous things you can do today,” he added.

The program is developing a cyber-secure radio to ensure no one can take over the robot. It would also like help from industry to develop chemical sensors that could detect the signatures of bombs buried in the soil, he said.

Northrop Grumman was chosen as the prime system integrator. As such, it cannot compete for the module contracts.

The request for proposals for increment 2 — the size most commonly used by bomb disposal teams in the field — was issued in early October with contract awards expected in the fourth quarter of 2017. Initial operating capability is scheduled for 2020. 

The increment 2 prime system integrator may also be chosen to do the increment 3 robot without holding a competition, Peters said. The Navy is shooting for full-rate production for the final robot in 2022.

Increment 1 is set for a critical design review in February, with a Milestone C decision on whether to proceed with limited manufacturing in September. Initial operating capability is scheduled for the first quarter of fiscal year 2019 and full operating capability in the third quarter of 2020.

The number of increment 1 robots to be procured is unclear as the Air Force bowed out of the program and went its own way to acquire an off-the-shelf robot after it ran out of patience with the Navy, which began the program in 2007. 

Despite the Navy and Army apparently going their own way on the small and medium robots, McVeigh said the door was open for cooperation. Since their robots will use standard operating systems, if the Navy were to acquire, for example, a dual-arm manipulator for AEODRS, the Army if it had the same requirement, could leverage that investment.

“If the Navy has developed a product that meets our requirement, I can go through his contract to buy that capability to significantly reduce our acquisition time and vice versa,” McVeigh said.
Meanwhile, the Army is placing its squad mission support transport robot in a new program that is designed to accelerate the pace of acquisitions, he added.

The SMET, as it is also known, is a tracked or wheeled platform intended to lighten the load for dismounted troops by carrying their rucksacks, water or ammunition. A similar vehicle was once a part of the canceled Future Combat Systems. A similar robot was tested with troops in Afghanistan and the Army had previously announced its intention to acquire more of the systems as part of its robotics roadmap. A previous plan to develop three sizes of the robotic vehicles — small, medium and large — has been scrapped. It will now focus on one robot capable of carrying 1,000 pounds, McVeigh said. 

One of the new methods to speed its acquisition will be to invite industry into the process of writing specifications. 

“In the past it has taken my program office — good, bad or indifferent — six to nine months, to develop a performance” specification, McVeigh said.

Currently, the Army develops specifications on its own. It then releases them for comments, which takes a month before receiving feedback — the opinions of several different contractors — who state what they think is reasonable. The Army then rewrites the specs, and sends it out again to repeat the whole process. “We can’t afford that much time in this process,” he said.

For SMET, his office will establish a collaborative board comprising industry engineers who are part of the National Advanced Mobility Consortium, to write and refine realistic specs. After about two weeks, it will produce a draft performance specification document, which is expected in January.

“I’m a firm believer that if you get five engineers around a table to discuss a problem, they will forget within three minutes what company they work for and they will focus on what is the challenge ahead of them,” McVeigh said.

Industry can help decide what performance specifications are executable and how they can be reasonably tested, McVeigh said.

“Instead of going through multiple iterations with industry where I’m getting individual feedback, we as a group can determine what is a fair and reasonable approach,” he said.

The government will retain the right to make the final call and the request for proposals will then go out to the broader industry, he noted.

He said this process may cut the timeline down from six to nine months to three months. “More importantly, we will have a better product and a better understanding from industry as we move forward.”

Lt. Col. Cory Berg, product manager for appliqués and large unmanned ground vehicles, said the SMET program was chosen for this new accelerated acquisitions program because it was already in the long-term budget plans. Officials at the same conference last year said the Army was shooting for an engineering, manufacturing and development milestone in 2019.

Berg said a revised timeline hasn’t yet been worked out. But the new regime it falls under seeks to shave a month or two off each step of the acquisition process. At the end of the road, the Army may be able to move the schedule forward by a year.  

One of the companies anticipating the SMET program is Roboteam Defense Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of an Israeli manufacturer. It will enter its Probot platform.

CEO Shahar Abuhazira said the company is bullish on the U.S. military robot market. It anticipates orders for 6,000 to 7,000 systems in the next two to three years. “These are big numbers,” he told reporters at a media day at the company’s Gaithersburg, Maryland, headquarters. 

The company recently received $150 million in private capital to help it gear up for the competitions. It will invest some of this money in a new research-and-development center, Abuhazira  said.

The market was “dead” for several years after the rapid acquisition of large numbers of EOD robots. There was little work other than sustainment of the off-the-shelf robots made by iRobot and Foster-Miller, now Endeavor Robotics and QinetiQ North America, respectively.

The military’s “big programs are on track and I think that is very good news for the industry,” he said.

Roboteam raised eyebrows in 2015 when it beat out more established companies for the Air Force’s increment 1-type EOD robot. It has delivered 200 of the 250 contracted systems in the last nine months.

“We felt that what happened to the UAVs in the late 1980s would happen with the UGVs these years and I’m happy to say that we were right,” he said. 


Topics: Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Army News

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