ADELPHI, Md. (May 15, 2014) -- A small team of elite special forces operators must hunt down a highly sought after terrorist leader. This terrorist has taken refuge in an urban environment, which offers concealment behind an array of structures, walls and other obstacles.
In today's Army, this type of scenario may expose Soldiers to a very high level of risk, while attempting to locate, identify and engage high-priority targets. However, in the future Army, a team of miniature ground and aerial robots may be able to enter the high risk zones and conduct a coordinated search, communicating with one another, and ultimately conveying critical information to Soldiers who are far removed from harm's way.
Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology, known as MAST, offers this potential capability and is being aggressively studied by researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, known as ARL, who are collaborating with both industry and academia under a collaborative technology alliance, or CTA.
"The MAST program seeks to enhance the tactical situational awareness of the dismounted Soldier in urban and complex terrain by enabling the autonomous operation of a collaborative ensemble of multifunctional mobile Microsystems," said Dr. Brett Piekarski, chief of ARL Micro and Nano Materials and Devices Branch within the Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate and cooperative agreement manager of the MAST CTA.
The structure and goals of the MAST CTA were developed by Dr. Tom Doligalski and Dr. Joseph Mait. Mait led the CTA when it was awarded in February 2008. The CTA is comprised of four research centers and numerous consortium members. The research centers include the Platform Integration Center, BAE Systems (lead); Microsystem Mechanics Center, University of Maryland; Processing for Autonomous Operation Center, University of Pennsylvania; and Microelectronics Center, University of Michigan.
Other consortium members include the California Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina Agriculture and Technical University, University of California-Berkeley, University of New Mexico and the University of Pennsylvania.
The technical approach to meet the goals and objectives of the MAST CTA is to focus on the critical science and technology research areas as they pertain to small scale platforms including mobility, control and energetics; communication, navigation and coordination; sensing, perception and processing.
In the areas of mobility, control and energetics, researchers are studying aeromechanics at small scales, body and appendage design at small scales, algorithms for complex navigation and small scale platform propulsion and actuation. In the area of communication, navigation and coordination, researchers are focusing on how to enable intelligent communication, networking and collaboration between micro autonomous robotic platforms. Under sensing, perception and processing, researchers are looking at low power sensors for navigation, obstacle detection, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
As the originator of the program, Mait commented on the conditions that led to the program's focus and eventual structure.
"In 2005, the world had just witnessed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's grand challenge, which indicated what autonomous systems were capable of doing," Mait said. "The autonomy that was displayed was made possible by large racks of equipment that were put in the back of large SUVs.
"For the types of missions that we had envisioned, the sizes of those vehicles were simply not suitable," Mait continued. "We were presented with the problem of taking the level of intelligence that had already been displayed and packaging it into something you can hold in the palm of your hand.
"At the time, we were one of the few in the U.S. looking at this issue," Mait explained. "The vision for MAST came about when we realized we couldn't take solutions that worked on large scales and shrink them down for a large platform. It wasn't going to be just a platforms, sensors or algorithms program; we needed to look at the system as a whole, which is what led to the genesis of MAST."
Mait, who currently serves as ARL's chief scientist, continued by offering a unique perspective on what MAST means to ARL's program in intelligent systems.
"Since the program was awarded, I am gratified at what has come out of MAST CTA," Mait said. "One being from a small company spun out of the University of Pennsylvania that produces little quad-rotors made to fit in the palm of a hand. This device has a large percent of the capabilities that we have wanted. That is a true sign of progress and the types of innovation that we supported through the MAST CTA. Within ARL itself, it has established us now as an organization capable of delivering autonomous platforms that are as large as a passenger vehicle but also as small as something that can be carried around with two arms then also carried in a single hand."
Within the consortium, researchers are confident of their capability to develop autonomous systems at all scales, which Mait believes will open doors and allow for greater creativity.
As for the next generation of MAST and its importance to the Soldier of the future, Piekarski said the program will continue to facilitate the platform that will provide unprecedented operational capabilities to the warfighter.
"We're going to have to have integrated solutions to make those things a reality, and that's where our program is going," Piekarski said.
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.
Army Technology Magazine [PDF]