Army researchers consider future autonomous robots

By U.S. Army CCDC Army Research Laboratory Public AffairsJune 25, 2019

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ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The Army of the future will use advanced ground robotics technologies to increase lethality, stand-off, penetration and convergence according to senior leaders in the Army Futures Command.

"Like it or not, artificial intelligence is coming to the battlefield," said Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, deputy commanding general for the AFC Futures and Concepts Center, said in a recent National Defense interview. "Do we want to wrestle with the problem now, or allow it to come to the battlefield delivered by our peers?"

Researchers at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's Army Research Laboratory are wrestling with autonomy challenges now.

"I want to get intelligent robotics systems to the field as soon as possible," said Phil Osteen, a roboticist with the lab's Vehicle Technology Directorate at APG. "Soldiering is the most dangerous profession on Earth and I think it is our responsibility to try to make that job a little bit safer."

Osteen earned his master's degree in mechanical engineering at University of Florida in 2009 and started working at the Army's corporate research laboratory soon after.

"The battlefield is such a chaotic environment that future robotics systems will have to make some decisions on their own," Osteen said. "You don't want to consume another Soldier's attention completely by just tele-operating a robot."

The trick, Osteen said, is to make the robot make decisions on its own.

"Specifically I'm interested in how the robot sees and understands its environment, in particular when things go south, which they will," he said.

Researchers are asking hard questions about what happens when sensors malfunction or if something goes wrong during a room clearing or ambush.

"In order to be successful, robotics systems would need to be able to make decisions on the fly," Osteen said.

Soldiers adapt, he said. If the lights go out, they use night vision googles, or feel their way around. Future robotics systems would need to adapt as well.

"Robots would need to use whatever sensors they have to regain situational awareness," he said.

Researchers are designing future robotic teammates to not have a single point of failure. A myriad of sensors will provide future robots with many options.

"They need to use cameras, sensors and laser-range finders," Osteen said. "It's one of the 'garbage in, garbage out' principles that you need to have autonomy algorithms in order to get the best performance."

One area of focus for Osteen's research is multi-sensor calibration, or getting all the data to provide the robot with complete situational awareness.

The laboratory is closely coordinating the transition of its multi-sensor calibration robotics research with CCDC's Ground Vehicle Systems Center, he said.

"They are frequently a transition partner," Osteen said. "The end user of our research -- at the end of the day -- is the Soldier. But to get it to the Soldier we need to sort of 'robustify' some of our algorithms at the basic research level. GVSC is often our partner in particular."

As part of a strategy to develop and deliver new robotics capabilities to future Soldiers, the Army has cast a wide net. The service has partnered with world-renowned experts in industry and academia in what is known as the Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance, or RCTA. The group formed in 2009 to bring together government, industrial and academic institutions to address research and development required to enable the deployment of future military unmanned ground vehicle systems ranging in size from man-portables to ground combat vehicles.

Partners include:

• General Dynamics Land Systems - Robotics

• Carnegie Mellon University - The Robotics Institute

• Massachusetts Institute of Technology

• Florida State University

• University of Central Florida

• University of Pennsylvania

• QinetiQ North America

• Cal Tech/Jet Propulsion Lab

"We're trying to go from tools to teammates so you can work side-by-side with them," said Dr. Stuart Young, the RCTA's collaborative alliance manager. "In order for robots to be teammates, they must operate in unstructured, complex environments."

Regardless of the future capability of autonomous robotics systems, there will always be a human in the loop, as far as the United States is concerned, Osteen said.

"We need people to understand that we're thinking very hard about this," he said. "We're not taking these concerns lightly."


The CCDC Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army's corporate research laboratory, ARL discovers, innovates and transitions science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power. Through collaboration across the command's core technical competencies, CCDC leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more lethal to win our Nation's wars and come home safely. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command.

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