USA — Army building smarter robots

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is explor­ing ways to upgrade its fleet of rough­ly 3,000 small tac­ti­cal robots in Iraq and Afghanistan designed to safe­guard Sol­diers by clear­ing build­ings and caves and using sen­sors to sweep areas for Impro­vised Explo­sive Devices, ser­vice offi­cials said.

 The Mini-EOD robots here are small, lightweight, man-portable systems capable of conducting operations in urban terrain, tunnels, sewers and caves. The use of robots aids in the performance of manpower-intensive or high-risk missions.
The Mini-EOD robots here are small, light­weight, man-portable sys­tems capa­ble of con­duct­ing oper­a­tions in urban ter­rain, tun­nels, sew­ers and caves. The use of robots aids in the per­for­mance of man­pow­er-inten­sive or high-risk mis­sions.
Pho­to cred­it Robot­ic Sys­tems Joint Project Office
Click to enlarge

New tech­nolo­gies bring the promise of deploy­ing small robots which can search for bombs, map areas and detect haz­ardous mate­ri­als — all with lit­tle or no tele-oper­a­tion or human intervention. 

“We are mov­ing along that spec­trum from tele-oper­at­ing to semi-auton­o­my where you can send a robot from point A to point B with­out any inter­ven­tion. If it has a prob­lem, it will pop up and indi­cate it has found an obsta­cle,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Thomp­son, project man­ag­er with the Robot­ic Sys­tems Joint Pro­gram Office. 

The Army and Marine Corps are work­ing with indus­try and aca­d­e­m­ic part­ners to look at ways to add new soft­ware to exist­ing robots — such as iRobot’s Pack­Bot and Qinet­ic North America’s TALON — enabling them to per­form more func­tions and nav­i­gate uncer­tain ter­rain with­out need­ing their every move to be con­trolled or tele-oper­at­ed by a human. 

“We are look­ing at ways to make the sys­tems that we already have out there bet­ter. We are work­ing with infantry and the (Mil­i­tary Police) to look at how we can enhance the capa­bil­i­ties of our cur­rent robots to meet their needs,” said Thompson. 

Some of the new­er robot­ic capa­bil­i­ties, such as auto­mat­ic self-right­ing and retro-tra­vers­ing, enable robots to cor­rect course, change direc­tion or turn right-side up — by themselves. 

“We’re look­ing for mod­u­lar­i­ty and inter­op­er­abil­i­ty. It will take the bur­den off the user. I want a robot to go from point A to point B by itself, and tell me when it gets there,” Thomp­son said. “We’re going to get bet­ter inter­face with the cam­eras and the grip­pers — and a lot more under­stand­ing of where the robot sits in space.” 

A more autonomous robot allows the user to free up ener­gy which would oth­er­wise be focused pure­ly on nav­i­gat­ing the robot. This will allow the user to attend to addi­tion­al con­cerns, robot­ic func­tions or threats. 

“We want to be able to allow Sol­diers to inter­act with the robots at a high lev­el of super­vi­so­ry input to the robots. To do that, the robot has to start under­stand­ing where it is, start under­stand­ing about what is in the way, and how to get around obsta­cles,” said Col­in Angle, chair­man and chief exec­u­tive offi­cer, iRobot. 

For instance, iRobot’s Aware­Head super­vi­so­ry con­trol sys­tem soft­ware enables semi-autonomous nav­i­ga­tion; the robot uses infrared sen­sors to map an area by itself, allow­ing a human con­troller to point-and-click on a touch-screen to send the robot to a giv­en destination. 

“When we start­ed, we had one robot and one con­troller, now you have much more oper­a­tional and logis­ti­cal flex­i­bil­i­ty. The excit­ing part is we’re right at the cusp of much, much smarter robots. Yesterday’s robots were head down, one guy con­trol­ling the robot every step of the way. Now, we are talk­ing about robots that can do much more for them­selves,” said Joseph Dyer, chief oper­at­ing offi­cer, iRobot. 

Qine­tiQ North Amer­i­ca is also work­ing with the Army and Marine Corps to advance robot­ics tech­nol­o­gy; at Fort Ben­ning, Ga., their TALON Explo­sive Ord­nance Dis­pos­al robot recent­ly demon­strat­ed an abil­i­ty to nav­i­gate and map a room with­out human inter­ven­tion, com­pa­ny offi­cials said. 

“We demon­strat­ed a com­plete­ly autonomous TALON robot with chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal and radi­o­log­i­cal detec­tion abil­i­ties. A map was cre­at­ed about 1,000 meters away from the build­ing show­ing what was inside a build­ing and where the haz­ards were — the robot was able to do that with­out any tele-oper­a­tion,” said Robert Quinn, vice pres­i­dent, TALON Oper­a­tions, Qine­tiQ North America. 

“In Afghanistan, 80 per­cent of the IEDs are home­made explo­sives, so hav­ing the abil­i­ty in 30 min­utes or less to do a com­plete inves­ti­ga­tion of build­ings and check for home­made explo­sives — with­out Sol­diers ever enter­ing the build­ing — is awful­ly impor­tant,” Quinn said. 

In order to max­i­mize the occa­sion to learn from Sol­diers in com­bat and har­ness their crit­i­cal feed­back, the Robot­ic Sys­tems Joint Pro­gram Office has sev­er­al facil­i­ties in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomp­son said. 

“Feed­back that we need from the warfight­ers is crit­i­cal,” he said. 

“You can send it out there where a man should not go in order to counter a threat and do the dull, dirty, or dan­ger­ous jobs,” said Thomp­son. “I would rather have a robot blown up than a Sol­dier or Marine.” 

U.S. Army 

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