Robots can stand in for Soldiers during risky missions

By Jean DubielAugust 11, 2008

Robots can stand in for Soldiers during risky missions
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT POLK, La. (Army News Service, Aug. 11, 2008) -- A recent television series featured competition between teams composed of engineers, mechanics and computer experts.

The teams competed by building remote control robots and pitting them against one other. The machines employed all manner of weaponry to destroy each other, including saws, spikes, hammers and mechanisms to crush, rip or burn. The team whose robot was left standing after the melee was declared winner.

Now imagine a robot that wields machine guns, opens doors, sets explosives or removes objects with a gripper claw. Add to that 360-degree visual capability, two-way communication, night and thermo vision, and lasers. The robot starts to sound like the fictional "Terminator." But such a robot exists -- and it's on our side.

Soldiers from the 519th Military Police Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, watched futuristic technology turn to reality during a demonstration at Range 9, here, Aug. 5. The presentation, by Foster-Miller Defense Technology Solutions, showcased the latest in Soldier-saving technology for the battlefield and urban environments.

"These robots can replace Soldiers in dangerous situations," said Adrian Herkenbrack, Foster-Miller DTS representative. "The advantage is that these robots have no fear, and we'd rather lose one of them than a Soldier."

Three robots, including "Dragon Runner," "TALON SWAT/MP" and "Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System," demonstrated their capabilities and versatility through three scenarios.

The first was a suspicious-looking moving van suspected of carrying explosive material. The Dragon Runner was deployed to investigate. The smallest of the three units, Dragon Runner weighs only 21 pounds with battery pack installed. It has four sturdy wheels and a color camera installed to look under and around vehicles and other obstacles. The images are transmitted to a control center in real time, so Soldiers get an instant view of the unit's findings.

For the exercise, Dragon Runner zipped under the truck for a quick scan and looked for signs of possible booby-trapping.

In a side demonstration, the Dragon Runner was heftily tossed into the range field, where it bounced a few times, came to a stop, righted itself, and returned to its original position under the operator's commands. This toy-like unit has a 300-meter range and can be fitted with flippers and treads for stair climbing and grippers for opening doors.

"Dragon Runner can fit into a Soldier's kit and is easily deployed," said Herkenbrack.

After Dragon Runner competed its inspection, the TALON SWAT/MP was deployed to open the back of the truck. It moves on tracked wheels but can be fitted with regular wheels when needed. At 125 pounds, the unit's primary feature is its arm and gripper, which can be used to manipulate objects, open doors and attach explosives. The TALON can even hold and fire a shotgun to breech doors or remove padlocks.

The TALON is also equipped with four cameras for 360-degree awareness as well as looking up or down. It has night vision and a thermal imager that tracks heat signatures to detect hidden personnel. The unit can move as fast as 7 mph, easily outrunning humans, and can be modified to climb stairs with up to a 45-degree angle. Loudspeaker and microphone attachments allow for two-way communication.

For the exercise, TALON SWAT/MP grabbed the handle of the truck's cargo door, twisted it and pushed the door up to reveal its contents. One of its cameras read the label of a barrel by the door, which was identified as explosive material. The robot picked up the barrel and carried it out of the truck for disposal.

"If that door had been rigged to blow, we would have lost a robot, but no Soldiers would have been hurt," said Herkenbrack. "That's what these units are here for. To save Soldiers' lives."

The MAARS was not used for the first scenario. Its turn to shine came during the next exercise -- a traffic control point encounter with a suspected suicide bomber or vehicle-emplaced explosive.

MAARS is also a tracked vehicle with wheel conversion capability, and has up to seven cameras installed. Other features include a loudspeaker, siren, microphone for two-way communication, and an operational range of up to three kilometers. But what makes MAARS unique is its firepower.

"This unit has escalation of force measures that use a laser range finder for ballistic solutions and a choice of lethal or non-lethal deployments," said Herkenbrack. "You can choose from rubber projectiles, sponge bags, disabling rounds (tear gas, smoke) or lethal rounds."

The 360-degree turret is fitted with an M240B machine gun, making the unit a remote weapons platform. It can fire warning shots over the target or aim direct.

"MAARS also has a gunshot detection feature, so it can pinpoint the direction of shots fired upon it and return fire," Herkenbrack said.

If firepower isn't needed, the weapons system can be replaced with an arm that can lift up to 120 pounds, making it capable of picking up 155mm rounds.

In the final scenario, a hostage situation, TALON SWAT/MP was deployed to attach an explosive charge to a steel-reinforced door as the MAARS provided over-watch in case of "bad guy" interference. After attaching the explosive, TALON SWAT/MP backed up a few feet, still holding the detonation cord, and blew the door open, nearly tearing it from its hinges. The MAARS entered the doorway, using cameras to identify anyone and everything inside. The hostage was removed, and upon encountering hostile fire from the enemy, MAARS fired the machine gun to eliminate the threat.

Following the demonstration, Soldiers had the chance to get an up-close look at the units, video control center and the controller.

The robots are controlled with a devices similar to video game hand controllers. According to Lt. Col. Brad Graul, 519th Bn commander, that's a plus in today's Army.

"The younger generation of Soldiers is going to pick up the use of the controller very quickly," Graul said. "It's so similar to video game controllers." One Soldier was even overheard saying, " ...and my mom said all those years of playing video games would never pay off!"

The bottom line is the number of lives saved by using these space-age robotic allies downrange.

"If one robot costs $300,000, but it saves one Soldier's life, then it's worth it," Graul said. One of his Soldiers wholeheartedly agreed.

"They make everything a little safer for us," said Pfc. Josh Guevara, 519th MP Bn.