COLUMBUS, Ga. (April 5, 2018) -- As Army leadership discussed developing robotics, machine learning, and Soldier systems at Columbus State University at Columbus, Georgia, March 23, across the street high school students controlled robots to compete with and against one another to move yellow cubes around an arena of switches and scales.
Different teams of high-school-age students built robots of approximately 120 pounds to move and steer around the arena and grab and lift the cubes as part of a game for the Georgia For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition.
Key leadership from the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning's Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate discussed the future of Army technologies among a showcase of in-the-works Army technology during the Peachtree District Columbus event of the First Robotics Competition.
Donald Sando, the deputy to the commanding general of MCoE and Fort Benning as well as director of CDID, both led the panel discussion and helped open the competition. During his opening to the competition, he outlined the importance of what the students were accomplishing as part of the game.
"What you're doing -- your creativity, your energy, your passion -- could apply to military service as well, either as a Soldier, civilian or a Department of Defense contractor," said Sando. "So there's lots of opportunities. The Army is replete with research labs. Our challenges are your challenges. We appreciate what you're doing and your creativity and your innovation."
PANEL OF THE FUTURE
The CDID panelists, besides Sando, included Col. Willie Nuckols, director of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Project Office for Maneuver Robotics and Autonomous Systems; Col. John Pirog, director of the Manuever Battle Lab; and Col. Travis Thompson, director of TRADOC Capabilities Manager -- Soldier.
"When we looked at the operational environment, we came up with operational concepts that drive more force modernization," said Sando during his opening remarks from the panel.
The panel focused specifically on robotics and autonomous systems among other technologies, which include directed energy (or non-projectile weapons) and energetics (or energy storage and release), power generation and management, advanced armor materials, and vehicle protection suites.
"All of these critical enabling technologies are intended to increase our capability relative to weight of our system, and our effectiveness relative to size of our formations," said Sando. "In another way: Get more out of less in our systems and our formations."
The panel was held in a large conference room lined with technology vendors displaying technology in development, including a Soldier-worn heads-up display to bring a smartphone augmented reality program into the Soldier's view, a caterpillar-tracked robot a remote user operates using a game console controller, and palm-sized unmanned aerial systems designed for quick surveillance.
Sando made clear the goal of robotics for the sake of the Maneuver Center of Excellence and the U.S. Army as a whole.
"When we look at robotic and autonomous systems, there are really two primary contributions that we see," he said. "One is to extend the area and time over which a formation can be effective, and the other is to reduce risk to Soldiers in conditions of uncertainty."
Thompson, on the part of TRADOC Capabilities Manager -- Soldier, spoke about the ability to reduce the uncertainty for Soldiers in the field.
"Soldiers shouldn't be the first things that are going into the breach," said Thompson. "You shouldn't have to send Soldiers in to do those most dangerous missions. You can get robotics systems to do that. Some are capable today, some will be capable in the future, but ultimately we have to work together as a team to make that happen."
Thompson also spoke about enabling the Soldiers by literally decreasing their burden.
"It lightens the Soldier load," he said. "Anybody who's seen a Soldier walking around with all the stuff they have on, if they could lose some of that, that would be nice. I know my back and knees would really appreciate it."
Nuckols, as TRADOC Project Office for Maneuver Robotics and Autonomous Systems, spoke about the impetus for the creation of his office.
"This new office was set up because of the emerging need for centralized management of robotics and autonomous systems within our combat formations," said Nuckols. "So this is the first step in furthering our desire to make Fort Benning and the greater Columbus area the center of gravity for all things related to maneuver robotics autonomous systems."
Pirog, as director of the Maneuver Battle Lab, is responsible for experimentation for the MCoE and the Army. He talked about how Soldier feedback from field testing at Fort Benning helped industry know what they could do better in the future.
"It's an iterative process," said Pirog. "We're informing industry what they need to do to increase the technology's ability before it becomes a program of record for the Army."
POWERING UP THE NEXT GENERATION
The name of the contest the high school teams and their robots took part in was called "First Power Up↑." The décor of the arena was inspired by classic arcade games and 8-bit video games -- bright colors, large pixels -- which the robots traversed, multiple teams competing as red or blue as they picked up the yellow cubes.
As the buzzer sounded and the timer started, the robots wheeled around, collided with one another, picked up yellow cubes and transported them to a balance scale in the center of the arena and to switches along the side.
This was the game. Teams worked together and competed against each other between the buzz of the clock. But the story of the competition extends back through weeks of planning and many extracurricular and volunteer hours spent learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM).
One team was First Robotics Competition (FRC) 4188, Columbus Space Program, a local team composed of students and volunteers from the Muscogee County School District.
Christine Hong, a Columbus High School student who served as a welder, electronics technician, and media liaison, believed in a STEM education, and engineering in particular, to build a useful career.
"We recognize how important this is to develop your path into a very successful future, because the engineering field is undoubtedly one of the better paths for if you want to develop a STEM career," she said.
Michael Brooks, a volunteer mentor and coach for FRC 4188, talked about the learning opportunity it provides his students.
"You couldn't be part of a better organization to learn about robots, teamwork, competition, helping each other," he said. "This is the best thing you can do in a STEM field when you're in high school -- to get a lot of experience in a lot of different areas, that you can carry that forward in life."
Ken Craig, manager of a software development team for Trusted Care Inc., served as the lead robot inspector for the competition. He said the students, by taking part in the competition are getting to do things often only accomplished by veterans within the STEM career field.
"They're learning things here that a lot of engineers won't see until they're 30, 40 years old," Craig said.
One of the chief learning opportunities, according to Craig, is when something goes wrong for the students, and through the last-minute problem-solving, the students have been learning and demonstrating collaboration and teamwork.
"Everything that you build, everything that you design is going to be wrong in some way -- guaranteed," said Craig. "When they get to the competition, they continue to work on their robot as much as they can and they need, and they're solving these problems and changing the robot -- fixing things and changing things. They'll be making modifications to make it pick up their cubes better or solve this problem better or drive better. They'll be working with other teams -- it's a collaboration effort that they work with other teams -- to figure out how to get things done."
Across the street at the Army press conference, the CDID panelists talked about being co-located with the high school competition, and how keeping students interested in STEM career fields could benefit the Army, even near term.
"We travel all over the place," said Thompson. "But traveling down the street is a much preferred option. We really enjoy it. We have all that capability and all that intellectual capital and knowledge, which is tied in here to Columbus and CSU and other areas.
"It would be much easier to drive down the street and go look at something and talk to the people who have these great innovative ideas than it is to jump on a plane and fly halfway across the country and world and do the same thing," continued Thompson.
Technology continuously changes, and Sando during the panel brought up how the introduction of automobiles had forever altered the U.S. Army Cavalry, saying initially the cavalry intended to use automobiles to transport horses to keep them fresh. Eventually they realized that the automobile itself was the future rather than an enabler of the horse-riding Soldier.
"The transition between one generation of technology and the next is sometimes challenging," he said. "We can sit here as senior leaders and have great ideas, and some of them might, in fact, be good, but if we can give that technology into the hands of our Soldiers, and take the creativity of academia, like we're seeing today -- to include high school kids across the street at the Georgia First Robotics competition, here and there, the creativity of our Soldiers -- we might solve a problem we didn't even know exists."
Whether the Army's presence at the robotics competition will directly yield results in its search for and implementation of new technology is a question years from being answered, but the possibility exists.
Hong said taking part in the competition opened her eyes to new possibilities for her own personal career after high school.
"Competition is always fun, and aiming for a goal helps build the skills," she said. "It really defined my path for the future, because I really think I want to get a career in the engineering field. And before high school, before I came into robotics or FRC 4188, I really wasn't thinking about engineering at all."
For more photos of this event or for more information on the Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate, visit the "Related Links" section on this page.