Thursday, June 09, 2005
By Byron Spice, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One measure of how effective battlefield robots have become, says a top Pentagon robotics official, is that the enemy has begun to target them.
Click photo for larger image.
"The enemy realizes that if they take out [the robot], they can really hurt our capabilities," said Cliff Hudson, who directs the Joint Robotics Program for the Department of Defense.
Reconnaissance robots, such as the backpackable Dragon Runner developed by Carnegie Mellon University, and those that dispose of unexploded mines and bombs have shown that they save soldiers' lives, Hudson said yesterday during a break in the Joint Robotics Program Working Group meeting at the Sheraton Station Square Hotel Pittsburgh.
The success with small ground robots, as well as with unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, has bolstered confidence as the armed forces move toward larger vehicles, such as Carnegie Mellon's 1-ton Gladiator recon robot, which will have longer range and, eventually, operate autonomously.
A dozen Dragon Runners were built for the U.S. Marines, which deployed them to Iraq a year ago. The four-wheeled device is only a little more than a foot long and not quite a foot wide and weighs 9 pounds. It can be thrown over walls, out a three-story window or up a flight of stairs; the flat, 5-inch-high machine can operate whichever way it lands.
"It's quickly become a critical piece of equipment," Hudson said, adding that it provides a safe means to look around corners or explore rooms.
Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Cliff Hudson, director of the Joint Robotics Program for the Department of Defense -- "The enemy realizes that if they take out [the robot], they can really hurt our capabilities."
Click photo for larger image.
"The feedback we've been getting has been very positive," said Noellette Conway, president of Automatika Inc., an O'Hara company that has licensed the technology from Carnegie Mellon. The company is building more Dragon Runners at the Pentagon's request and is anticipating a large order later this year.
"We are building a few more and we've geared ourselves up to build a lot more," doubling the company's production capacity, she added.
Explosive ordnance disposal robots have been the biggest success thus far, Hudson said. The military has about 500 of them now and soldiers assigned to bomb disposal swear by them.
"Many have told us, 'It saved my life,' " he added.
The Iraq conflict has increased pressure to deploy battlefield robots, while also serving as a live test bed for the technology.
"It's providing effective feedback to us before we get too far along in the development process," Hudson said.
One response to the enemy's targeting of recon robots is to develop expendable robots -- robots similar in many ways to radio-controlled toy cars, he said.
But the military robots also are growing in size. The Gladiator being built for the Marines is one step toward these larger, longer-range, more capable machines. The unmanned vehicles will be growing larger, particularly as the Army moves forward with its $100 billion Future Combat Systems plan, which would deploy a variety of robotic vehicles, including armed vehicles, by 2010.
Current robots are teleoperated by soldiers, but as the vehicles become larger and cover more territory, more emphasis will be placed on vehicles that can drive themselves. Also, autonomous vehicles will help reduce the human workload, by eliminating the need to have one human teleoperator for each vehicle.
Autonomous ground navigation is a technical "tough nut," Hudson said, which is why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has targeted that technology with its Grand Challenge race.
"It's igniting that spirit of innovation," he said of the race, which will award $2 million to the team whose driverless racer can complete the 175-mile desert course in the fastest time and within 10 hours.
No team came close to finishing the first Grand Challenge last year. DARPA this week announced the 40 semifinalists for the Oct. 8 event, including two vehicles developed by Carnegie Mellon's Red Team.
In addition to technology development, the Pentagon is working to develop the production base for robotics. That includes events such as this week's two-day meeting in Pittsburgh, which included more than 150 robotics experts from the military and private industry.
Many robotics firms are small businesses, Hudson said, so the Pentagon has begun a mentor-protege program, matching the small, young companies with large, experienced military contractors. Two local firms -- re2 of Lawrenceville and Kuchera Defense Systems of Windber, Somerset County -- are among the first in that program, paired respectively with Textron and Raytheon.