Testing of unmanned systems presents challenges
May 18, 2009
The U.S. Army traditionally has acquired weapon systems through a process that can take years, but the ongoing fight in Afghanistan and Iraq has shortened the time frame considerably. Robotic systems that can save lives on the battlefield are getting into Soldiers' hands more rapidly than ever before, and the U.S. Army's Developmental Test Command is transforming its business practices to support that effort, according to James Johnson, DTC's executive director.
Test and evaluation to support rapid fielding of both manned and unmanned systems have been streamlined in recent years, Johnson said.
"By that, I mean we are not doing everything we would in a normal test program," he added. "In a traditional program, we would test in a hot, cold and tropical environment, and maybe do a lot of other environmental testing. For some of the rapid acquisition programs, we have left out testing in the cold, for instance, and left out the tropics. So we know fairly well how systems are going to behave in Iraq or Afghanistan. But, if the Army moved to a different theater of operations, we couldn't tell for certain how well that equipment would do there."
Developing test reports for acquisition program managers and Army evaluators also has become a speedier process, Johnson explained. Instead of issuing a "pass/fail" report for many of the systems the Army needs, the Army Test and Evaluation Command provides reports on their capabilities and limitations, he said. The command also deploys testers to the theater of operations to help assess how systems perform there, Johnson said.
"Because we are not getting to do as much testing as we would necessarily like on this end, we are sort of catching up to the equipment out in the field," he said. "We're seeing how the equipment is operating, and we're providing expert advice to the Soldiers who are operating that equipment. That is quite different."
Rapid acquisition is not the only issue DTC is working to address. Keeping costs down for test customers is a key objective of the command, Johnson said, noting that DTC is constantly tackling the challenge of reducing costs to customers.
"We've always got to have a reasonable cost, do testing on time and provide a quality product to the customer," he said. "When you get into these newer commodity areas like unmanned ground systems and [unmanned] aerial systems, that adds to the challenge because we have to learn a new technology, maybe something we've never tested before. Then we're trying to do all of that in a period when budgets are tight. Shrinking budgets are always on our mind, and we're trying to figure out how we can cut our costs and be more efficient in order to answer budget challenges."
DTC has the instrumentation and facilities needed to tackle the challenges associated with testing the new unmanned systems, but its test procedures must evolve to be appropriate for them, both on the ground and in the air, Johnson said.
"For those new commodities, procedures are being developed, and it comes down to safety concerns," he said. "For example, we talk about unmanned aerial vehicles operating in the same airspace as manned [aerial] vehicles, and we haven't yet come to grips fully with how we can operate in the same airspace. That's something we're working on with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]. Right now, it is driving a lot of tests out to our western ranges, where there is a lot of airspace and not a concern with them running into a manned aircraft."
The operation of unmanned ground vehicles on DTC ranges also poses procedural challenges for testers, he added.
"If you remotely operate a large vehicle like a HMMWV [high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle], for example, and the vehicle goes out of control because the remote operator loses contact with it, it could run over and kill somebody. So procedurally we're taking a look at how we test those kinds of things. Then, when we go even a step further, where we've got an unmanned system with missiles or guns, there are safety issues we've got to work out, and that's not just how we're going to test those systems. DTC is charged with completing safety confirmations and safety releases for Soldiers . . . so we've got to think through that and have safety mechanisms in place so the Soldier is not going to get into a difficult situation and get injured or killed when operating these systems."
Another significant challenge testers are facing is the operational tempo that goes with rapid-acquisition programs, Johnson explained.
"It is not unusual to go to many of our ranges and see two, sometimes even three, shifts, and possibly working six days a week because there is just so much pressure to get that equipment over to the Soldier as quickly as possible," he said. "If we've got some magic bullet, something that will save lives, we've got to turn that around as quickly as we possibly can. That raises issues of burning people out over time, so we're trying to watch out for that. You can drive somebody so hard they will try to find a job elsewhere because the work hours are just so much."
Johnson said DTC must do what it can to attract and retain workers with the expertise needed to support its customers. As Army organizations undergo relocations under the Base Realignment and Closure process, they seek to hire employees with the kinds of skills testers and evaluators possess, potentially drawing them away from DTC, he explained.
"There is a competition for people because you've got a lot of jobs moving in, but not necessarily the bodies that go with those jobs," Johnson said. "So we're keeping our eye on that because our people are going to be the logical people they hire, offering promotions and that kind of thing. In the test and evaluation world, as in any other business, we're only as good as the people we've got, and we can lose our expertise and suddenly not offer that great service to the customer anymore."
DTC's test customers for robotic systems include the Army's Rapid Equipping Force as well as the Defense Department's Robotic Systems Joint Project Office and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. They all are involved in the acquisition of various robotic systems intended to enhance war-fighting capabilities and prevent casualties from roadside bombs and other threats. The RSJPO is aligned to support, field and sustain ground robots along three primary mission areas - maneuver, maneuver support and sustainment, said Jeffrey Jaczkowski, one of the people working the acquisition of unmanned systems at the Program Executive Office, Ground Combat Systems, in Warren, Mich.
Some of the most urgently needed and fielded systems are Soldier-portable unmanned ground vehicles. Among these are the PackBot, TALON and MARCbot and their variants, relatively small robotic systems whose payload and configurations depend on the mission they are used for, Jaczkowski said. Systems such as these are "tele-operated," meaning an operator can control them while looking at video feedback for command and control decisions and local situational awareness. The payloads that can be mounted onto system platforms depend on their mission; in the future some may include weapons, he added.
In the sustainment category, the Marine Corps is developing a tele-operated front-end loader that resembles a Bobcat, Jaczkowski said. The Defense Department also is looking to field a system called the Saratoga, designed with sensors to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats, he added.
The Future Combat System's Multifunction Utility/Logistics Equipment Vehicle is another unmanned platform that will require both developmental and operational testing. The MULE transport variants are designed to carry equipment and supplies in support of dismounted maneuver elements. Other MULE variants include the Armed Robotic Vehicle Light, Assault, and the countermine platform, the ARV-L (assault), which will be armed to support dismounted infantry in the close assault mission.
"For the robots that we have fielded, the mission application includes surveillance and extended standoff from the Soldier operator to around the corner, into a building, structure, cave tunnel or dwelling," Jaczkowski said. "That basically allows the Soldier or Marine about a kilometer of standoff to go do some surveillance or interrogation. The systems that we have in that area are MARCbot and xBot. Both of those are Soldier-portable systems. The MARCbot is a wheeled platform that is relatively inexpensive, and the xBot is a PackBot variant primarily used for reconnaissance. TALON as well as Packbot variants are used to enhance route clearance missions. On the larger side, we've got something called an MV-4. It is a program-of-record system used for area clearance."
The 5 ton MV-4 is a remotely operated tracked vehicle using a flail and hammer to dig up and destroy, or activate, mines. Its small dimensions and low track-ground pressure allow the machine to pass over difficult terrain, including steep slopes.
"That is approaching Milestone C, but we have contingency systems in use for both Iraq and Afghanistan," Jaczkowski said. Milestone C signifies that a system has gone through system development and demonstration and is ready to enter the production phase of acquisition.
Both Jaczkowski and James Van Coillie, chief of the Product Assurance/Test and Configuration Management Division within the RSJPO, said DTC has done a good job of facilitating the fielding of unmanned systems through expeditious testing. They see DTC as a reliable partner in the acquisition process, and very supportive of fast-track acquisitions, Van Coillie said.
"When we get operational needs statements and joint operational needs statements that are funded through a REF or a JIEDDO initiative, it is a very fast acquisition process to meet some very streamlined schedules," Van Coillie explained. "We work together with DTC and ATEC, coordinating the appropriate tests in order to evaluate these platforms for users and certify that they are safe and that we acknowledge any kind of limitations they have. The capabilities and limitations document highlights any types of dangers associated with these platforms. This actually works pretty well, but because we deal with COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) items and fast-track programs for meeting contingencies, it makes our relationship with DTC and ATEC kind of unique.
"We are challenged to perform all necessary tests in order to determine the system's capabilities and limitations, and meet the Soldier's needs for urgent fieldings. One of the issues we've got right now that is slowing down our schedule involves the COTS trailer," Van Coillie said. "We've got to make sure the system is adaptable in the environment in which it's going to be used, but not have to go through all this environmental type testing. Basically, we are aware, and the Soldiers are aware, that this COTS trailer is a temporary measure until we get the long-term solution, the final government-approved trailer."
The development of military robotic systems is moving from platforms that are tele-operated to those that have autonomous capabilities, meaning they can sense their environment, adapt to it and respond without a command from an operator, Jaczkowski said. Properly testing such systems will require a close collaboration between the acquisition community and testers, he said. Redundant controls will be added to ensure system safety during testing, he added.
"The test methodologies that we use for tele-operated systems are going to be quite different from those methodologies that we will need for autonomous or semi-autonomous systems," Jaczkowski said. "We need to be able to do things like an operational test, and the test environment is going to be similar to the environment that these systems are going to be used in. We'll add initial safety systems that would not be on a final product. We have redundant radios. We have an emergency-stop radio and a safety operator. There are challenges to work through that I see in the future, especially with FCS coming. The test community and the PMs need to start thinking about how we are going to test and get through this together."
Because the Defense Department still has a long way to go in developing the capabilities of robotic systems, DTC will continue to adapt to support the testing that future unmanned systems will require, Johnson said.
"DoD has not tapped into all the capabilities that these unmanned systems can bring to bear," he said. "That just brings it back to DTC and how we've got to make sure we're progressing along with those unmanned systems, in our expertise, in our capabilities and in our instrumentation, so that as unmanned systems become more and more prevalent, we're going after that business. It's an exciting time to be involved in that kind of commodity."