YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz.-- Machines can be replaced, but people can't.
In combat, land mine and improvised explosive device (IED) clearance is a slow, painstaking, stressful job that physically and mentally drains Soldiers and military working dogs.
U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) has long had the expertise, facilities, and geographical features to test the most cutting-edge technologies to defeat this threat and remove Soldiers from harm's way. Technologies that seek out a variety of explosive hazards and IED components have matured in recent years to the point that semi-autonomous robots can detect, mark, and even destroy buried threats.
The latest such system is called the Standoff Robotic Explosive Hazard Detection System (SREHD), and testing is currently underway at the proving ground.
"It's one of the few places in the country where we can really get a good evaluation of how the system performs against these varied threats," said Peter Strong, lead engineer. "YPG has lanes that are already planted with explosive targets that allows us to really test our sensors. There is varying terrain, vegetation, and high weather extremes, but also on site are environmental chambers and other infrastructure we need."
Improvised explosive devices have the bulk of popular awareness, but the danger of conventional mines to Soldiers remains as great as ever. Though the vast majority of the world's nations have banned anti-personnel mines, over 30 countries have not signed the treaty to cease manufacture and use of the weapons. Additionally, many places in the world are contaminated by devices that are decades old. In Afghanistan, for example, United States forces contended with an estimated 10 million such legacy mines, as well as new devices placed by insurgents.
Whereas earlier robots had only a single camera and a five-jointed mechanical arm for interrogating threats, the SREHD boasts stereoscopic cameras that provide a Soldier a three dimensional representation of the terrain being scanned on a handheld computer device and sophisticated sensors that help them discriminate between threatening devices and innocuous pieces of debris. The SREHD methodically scans an area with consistency and marks a cleared trail with blue dye. If a threat is detected, the robot can spray an X on the ground to mark the spot.
"Not only do we mark with a very clear blue X, the marking is visible at night with night vision goggles," said Strong.
Perhaps most importantly for Soldiers, the SREHD can detonate a threat without the need for excavation or additional interrogation of the suspected explosive device. A Soldier instead uses the robot to carefully place a shaped explosive charge over the threat, then remotely detonates it after having the SREHD retreat to a safe distance.
Rigorous evaluation at YPG in a rugged natural environment not only ensures the systems can successfully detect explosives, but also that they are robust enough to handle traversing rough, dusty terrain. During the current testing, Soldiers from the 92nd Engineering Battalion at Fort Stewart, Ga. operate the SREHD as they would in a route clearance convoy in combat areas, running the platforms down test lanes with handheld control units as data collectors stand by to record how the machine operated and where it identified a buried threat target. As Soldiers can use the controller remotely from a distance, one data collector observes them from within an armored vehicle, while another follows alongside the robot. By the time the testing is complete, hundreds of hours of data will have been collected.
"We take video of every run and can tell if it found or went around the targets," said Jesus Estrada, test officer. "They run on primary, secondary, and off-road terrains for three hours, then come out to the lanes to do their missions."
In some portions of testing, the SREHD is placed in a conditioning temperature under various extremes of temperature and humidity, then put through its paces on the range.
Currently mounted on the existing Talon robot, the SREHD will likely be integrated into future systems. The degree of autonomy is likely to increase in the future, too, which project engineers welcome.
"There is a big misperception about the word autonomous: people think it is a self-governing vehicle that does whatever it wants to do," said Maj. Lendrick James, assistant product manager. "In fact, an operator always has control of the next step in where it will go. In the future, we need to embrace and leverage robotics and understand it can be used to help us."
"Autonomy is not there to take over for the human, it's there to supplement and maximize the human," added Strong. "Autonomy is part of our future, and will help us both on and off the battlefield."