By Ms. Bonnie Robinson (ATEC)August 20, 2015
U.S. ARMY DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah--An Army Humvee navigates steadily along the dusty, unpaved ground of the Utah West Desert. A moving Humvee is not an uncommon site on any Army installation--unless there is no driver at its wheel.
Throughout the Army, in the two post-sequestration years, concerns have been expressed about the shrinking of brigade combat teams from 4,000 to 3,000 Soldiers and the cancellation of the ground combat vehicle infantry carrier, which would have replaced the Bradley fighting vehicle early in the 2020s.
"What the Army needs is an agile, versatile, highly maneuverable and cost-effective unmanned ground vehicle, said Lt. Gen. (retired) Rick Lynch, who has become a robust champion of robotic unmanned systems.
A peek at what that this technology might look like took place, August 13, at U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, with a demonstration of the Pronto4™ Uomo Applique' Kit developed by Kairos Autonomi, a Utah-based team located in the Sandy area, southeast of Salt Lake City.
"Dugway is an ideal location for demonstrating unmanned Army ground vehicles," said Steve Balderas a Dugway Special Program manager. "Dugway has nearly 700,000 acres of dry, sand-like soil and its high-desert mountains easily replicates the kind of environment where our Soldiers might fight." Lynch reached out to Balderas to set up the demonstration.
Lynch, retired with 34 years of military service, including commanding 25,000 surge troops in Iraq. His experience there is a grim reminder that confrontation with roadside bombs come at a high cost for the Services.
He said that, with a smaller force and a tighter budget, the Army's strategic expectation means it is looking closely at investing in technology platforms, like robotics, which can meet the needs of future battlefield commanders, much like it is doing now, in the air, with unmanned aircraft.
Basically, if its dull, dirty or dangerous, send in the robots, Lynch said.
Lynch explained that what drew his attention to Applique' Kit was that it could "retrofit the system into an existing vehicle," making it autonomous.
The Applique' Kit was developed by Troy Takach, Kairos Autonomi's president and CEO, who has been vastly interested in the robotic field for years. In June, his team competed in the Defense Advance Research Project Agency's (DARPA) Robot Challenge.
"Although our team didn't win that competition, we did pretty well considering all the tasks that were required," Takach said. "We are enormously excited to be working in the robotic industry as part of the next generation of technology."
Takach said that Lynch was part of the inspiration for this system. He recalled a forum where he first heard the general speak about the need for a robotic ground vehicle.
"I thought if we could create a scaled-down unmanned driver that didn't have to be fully autonomous but could be carried easily and rapidly installed by Soldiers, it might prove to be valuable to the Army," he said of the kit that was specifically designed to fit in a Soldier's rucksack.
The Applique' Kit is a strap-in autonomous system, which, once placed inside the Humvee, looks like a headless, centered-armed, metal skeleton sitting in the driver's seat. Imagine an enemy seeing this strange mechanical aberration for the first time.
It fits solidly in place with two long metal legs connected to knee and ankle joints and two narrow feet strapped to the vehicle's pedals.
"The kit can be adapted to any steered vehicle," Takach said. "We believe it is ideal for operations such as leader-follower reconnaissance, tactical distractions, chemical or biological compromised areas, and weapons and tactics training."
Around the steering column is a ring of actuators that control the mechanism. It operates using electric current, hydraulic fluid pressure, or pneumatic pressure, which turns energy into motion. The transmission and throttle are controlled by secure lines from a main box, which sits about three inches high, flat on the driver's seat, and connects to the steering wheel and the leg pedals.
A small camera, mounted near the Humvee's roof, allows the operator a broader view than a physical driver, seated inside. The GPS responder is also affixed to the roof.
The Applique' Kit is controlled using an eight-inch square tablet basically, a game pad controller with a mounted screen. "It displays streaming video, with overlaid GPS telemetry for situational awareness," explained Blaine Deveraux, the system's program manager. "It is controlled by Kairos Shepherd Software and could be integrated with select third-party software."
Deveraux said the system includes "a remote start and easy transmission shifting, which makes it simple to operate.
It's surprising how quickly the entire kit can be installed. From packed cargo to ready to move-out status took seven minutes, 32 seconds. There were no permanent modifications to the vehicle, making it easy to removed and repacked in under six minutes.
"It is conceivable that any young Soldier could get the training in the morning, and be ready to roll out in the afternoon," Deveraux said of its operational videos and an easy to use flip book.
Taking on America's adversaries in contested battlefields will never be a simple task, but new technology demonstrated and proven at Dugway, may make it easier and safer for our nation's Warfighters.
"We cannot ignore our Soldiers needs any longer," Lynch stressed. "I believe robotic unmanned vehicles, like what we have seen here today, could be a game changer."
Dugway Proving Ground part of the Army Test & Evaluation Command in Aberdeen, Md.