By Stacy A. Ouellette, Army News ServiceSeptember 7, 2017
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Army News Service) -- Robotic systems similar to drones, but with the ability to fly, crawl, perch, climb, and maneuver around obstacles, were on display here recently as part of a capstone event to demonstrate the progress made following nearly a decade of study by Army Research Laboratory and academia into increasing situational awareness for the dismounted Soldier.
"The purpose of the capstone event is to display all the work that has come out of the MAST program," said Allison Mathis, who serves as the deputy manager for MAST CTA, and who is also a researcher at ARL. "There is an enormous variety of incredible technology we have created and we'd like to showcase it and give people the opportunity to transition it."
Since 2008, the Army Research Laboratory has served as the military lead agency for the Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance. The project is typically referred to as MAST CTA.
The goal of MAST CTA was to provide individual dismounted Soldiers with autonomous tools that can provide situational awareness by going in, over and around obstacles that block a Soldier's line of sight.
In general, MAST CTA has done significant research into figuring out what can be done to provide Soldiers with robotic "teammates" that can be taken on the battlefield, that operate independently and without input from a control system such as a joystick, and that can provide those Soldiers with environmental awareness.
Such autonomous robotic teammates wouldn't need to be controlled by those Soldiers. Rather, like with a human teammate, a Soldier would simply be able to tell the robot what he wanted, and the robot would be able to do it, without further input or interaction.
"The future vision is for Soldiers to say, 'I want to know what is inside of that building,' or on that rooftop, and to then deploy an independent device to the objective so it can provide information to the Soldier," said Brett Piekarski, MAST CTA manager. "With this information, Soldiers can make decisions on where, when and how to move with more knowledge of threats in the environment."
Mathis said that possible devices that one day could be made available would identify hazards and give crucial information to Soldiers on the ground. Having such devices would keep Soldiers themselves and other innocent people safe. The main goal is to create a pocket-sized system that a Soldier can pull out of their pocket and that he or she could toss out to fly or crawl into a space to investigate it for them.
To provide that type of mobility and agility to robotic systems, researches with MAST-CTA looked everywhere, including nature, Mathis said.
"Robotics has been interested in biological movement for a long time," Mathis said. "We have so many examples of things that are well-adapted to a number of environments. It would be foolish not to use them as inspiration. We're not looking to recreate a house fly or lizard, but rather, what it is about any of those things that make them so well-adapted and how we can utilize it."
As part of MAST-CTA, researchers weren't necessarily developing end-products that will end up in the hands of Soldiers. Instead, researchers involved were proving technology ideas, and creating prototypes that showcased those ideas, so that industry can later come back and use that research to develop equipment that can be fielded to Soldiers.
The MAST-CTA reached its goal of discovering how to deliver rugged, autonomous systems into the hands of Soldiers for use on the battlefield and beyond. They have proved it's possible to meet the needs of the Army. Now, it's up to industry and others to actually develop the pocket-sized tool for Soldiers.
"We came together and fostered a community with ARL, other Department of Defense agencies, industry and academic institutions," said Piekarski. "We raised the bar from where we started ten years ago, and that is what I am most proud of."
In the future, Piekarski said, researchers with MAST CTA are hopeful their research will contribute to saving lives.
"It is very rewarding to think of what you're doing as a researcher can save or make the life of a Soldier on the battlefield easier," he said. "Wars are inevitable and we need to manage it to where there is the least amount of casualties and harm to people. It would be great to find out one day that the MAST contributed to saving the lives of Soldiers."