(Editor’s note: Dr. Michael Novitzky, a Robotics Research Center assistant professor and research scientist, helped write portions of the HuRT-C feature.)
It was an overcast day on Range 15, at the Urban Assault Course at Camp Shea, but a beam of light broke through upon the tactical environment as U.S. Military Academy cadets shined in various forms while working with unmanned systems during the Human-Robot Teaming – Competition (HuRT-C) on Saturday at West Point.
The HuRT-C’s purpose is to develop manned-unmanned teams (MUMT) capable of conducting reconnaissance and providing direct fire support to improve the combat effectiveness of a squad-sized element.
A combined effort from the 14-member HuRT-C West Point Capstone Team, who demonstrated the use of the air-ground unmanned systems that they produced over the past two semesters, and 14 members of the Department of Military Instruction-sponsored cadet club Future Applied Systems Team (FAST), who were the maneuver force on the ground, together showed how Soldiers and unmanned air and ground systems work in sync to achieve their objective, which in this scenario was teaming up to assault a multi-story structure with opposing forces occupying the building.
The operation involved the use of an Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV/Jackal) and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV/Tarot 650), which the Capstone Team built for the demonstration and a project grade. A key element was the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), which is a geospatial infrastructure and military situation awareness GPS system integrated to provide live reconnaissance video on a TV screen at the remote site and to cellphones used by the FAST Team. All these functions played a role in the HuRT-C demonstration event.
HuRT-C is supported by the Robotics Research Center (RRC) along with Army Research Lab and Navy funding. It was hosted by RRC in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department and the Department of Military Instruction through the FAST cadet team. HuRT-C is a capstone collaboration among the West Point departments of EECS, Civil and Mechanical Engineering and Systems Engineering.
This is the third full year of HuRT-C, which is a research project of building unmanned equipment, operating the equipment and giving feedback to RRC and DMI by both the West Point cadets and the U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen.
In the past, the cadets and midshipmen would build their own unmanned systems and then participate in a force-on-force competition against each other that takes place at Quantico, Virginia, each semester. However, with COVID-19 restrictions still in place, the cadets and midshipmen didn’t compete against each other in the force-on-force action this semester, although there will be a virtual competition later this month.
Nonetheless, to demonstrate the integration of the unmanned assets, the FAST cadet team and capstone team executed versus members of the West Point Military Police, who acted as the opposing force.
As HuRT-C was successfully executed Saturday, many elements had a hand in its success as all the data was collected by the RRC and DMI, which will be used in an ongoing process toward building and applying the lessons learned to future military unmanned systems and operations.
DMI’s stake in HuRT-C
The Future Applied Systems Team (FAST) is a Department of Military Instruction cadet club that focuses on developing techniques, tactics and procedures (TTPs) for future use of technology at the squad level. They also focus on ways to mitigate or defeat technology that could be used against small units.
The team of 25 total cadets is led by Class of 2023 Cadet Caitlin Blevins, and is advised by Capt. Curt Lane, Sgt. 1st Class Morgan Wallace and Sgt. 1st Class Donald Patton. The team practices every weekend and works closely with Dr. Michael Novitzky, a RRC assistant professor and research scientist, and the capstone cadets to provide feedback on what is working, or not working, in the field.
Wallace has been leading training with the FAST cadet club on weekends to include small-unit patrolling, military operations in urban terrain (MOUT), and close-quarters combat, both during daylight and limited-visibility operations. The FAST cadet club has been participating in force-on-force operations for the past three years against Navy midshipmen, Marines, and, more recently, the Military Police.
The club is diverse, representing academic departments such as Systems Engineering, space science, history, defense and strategic studies, and international affairs. The FAST cadet club is completely volunteer. The club dedicates at least two-and-a-half hours during the week and then the entire day Sunday to practice its skills to include classroom time and then range time.
A fire team within FAST is called the “Robotics Integration Team.” These cadets with varying backgrounds have begun learning how to make tactical robots from the ground up. They visit the Robotics Research Center on their own time to learn the art of robot making such as communications, 3-D printing, Soldering, wiring and programming.
This semester, the RIT fire team has created unmanned air and ground robots along with tactical interfaces. For example, during the HuRT-C, the RIT brought its green rock crawler named “Todd the Rover” and an air vehicle named “Valkyrie” for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. They have moved beyond just using remote control robots to adding video cameras and transmitters to both systems.
To view these video streams and use it during tactical situations, the team has integrated a monitor with a mount that attaches to a Soldier’s kit. This allows a fire team to control the vehicle and leverage the video feed immediately to act at the fire-team level.
The strength of the FAST cadet club is that they are organically in a cycle of prototyping unmanned robot assets during weekly practices and then refining the robots and their TTPs, accordingly.
RRC, DMI and the Departments
Since late August, the capstone team cadets have been working with the RRC, DMI, DSE, CME and EECS as part of the cross-department capstone to put together an air-ground robotics team to help augment a small unit tactics team.
One of the key advisors is Novitzky, who oversees the capstone cadets at every juncture of the HuRT-C experience.
Novitzky said it all began as the RRC provided them with baseline technologies. For example, the RRC goes through a company, Clearpath Robotics, to buy robotic ground vehicles to help with research and development.
“(The vehicle) comes with the wheels, drive train and all the power required,” Novitzky said. “The cadets add different things to it, such as computers for processing images, cameras, lasers to identify things. They also add other components, extra parts for different reasons.”
To build the abilities of the UGV, Novitzky mentioned that one of the capstone team members, Class of 2021 Cadet Trevor Powers, would go out on the weekends to grab data of the FAST cadet team and others doing small-unit tactics wearing their Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniforms.
“This helped create a computer vision classifier, which it can classify people in OCPs as friendlies, so the robot can tell you where the friendlies are and where the enemies are — which is great,” Novitzky said.
Before a previous HuRT-C competition against Navy, Novitzky said they purchased Navy uniforms to train the classifier system to learn the opposition’s gear.
“Even for humans, distances are hard, so this helps (training the classifier) because it is going to be challenging for robots as well,” Novitzky said. “But, when you are out there and you have a choice between sending a robot to see things versus sending (a Soldier) out, I’m going to choose the robot.”
The UAV, air platform, is where RRC buys basic parts off the shelf with the motors, the parts that makes it fly and a remote control. Again, Novitzky said, the cadets add sensors and computer power to it.
“It is also capable of having the (object detection) on it as well,” Novitzky said. “Now you have different vantages and can have it go in different areas.”
Another piece used in the HuRT-C is the ATAK device, which is something that the Army Research Lab is interested in, where team members, FAST cadets in this case, can be strapped with GPS coordinates and then it will show up on a ATAK unified map.
“What robots are capable of doing is showing us their location and if they see something, then they can auto populate it, say an opponent on the map, and then everyone who is in touch with the network can also see what it’s identifying,” Novitzky said. “I think this is the special glue the cadets have put together that really pushes it over the edge, especially for use in a military environment.”
The thing the cadets are working on for the Army Research Lab is being able to share when a robot sees a target. Then, can the robot share the image to verify whether or not the people are friend or foe, Novitzky said.
“The cadets were able to put it up so it can show a video feed now on the same device, so imagine having your cellphone, you have this map, it populates the map with a symbol and then you look at the feed and it is showing you what it is seeing,” Novitzky said. “As the ultimate authority, you can say, ‘yes, I agree, or no, I don’t agree,’ and you can make a (mission) decision based off that.”
After the initial demonstration and before the competition scenario, the FAST cadet team did an After Action Review with the DMI faculty, who went over the results with both the FAST cadet team and the opposition forces, the MPs, on the results of the assault on the structure with the unmanned systems in tow.
But no matter the success of the capstone team, the FAST cadet team or the MPs playing the opposing forces, what is being done here is important toward the future success of the warfighting effort.
“Ultimately, we want to provide our Soldiers with the best technology that we can for them to accomplish their mission, and really achieve overmatch,” Korpela, associate professor in EECS, said. “We want to have such overmatch against an adversary that they will not even want to confront us. Again, this is all future looking and how we can transition capabilities to the future force about three-to-five years from now.
“It doesn’t stop here, we’re working with Program Executive Offices and Program Managers to transition to these fielding systems,” he added. “We see small air to ground systems already, and how what we’re learning here is going to help make the transition to those systems better in the future.”
The Capstone Cadets and Leveraging a Rivalry for Innovation
The cadets who are a part of the HuRT-C Capstone project have had to overcome obstacles along the way to get the finish line of their project. They had to deal with COVID-19 restrictions, the cross-departmental work and a change in the building of the UGV and UAV, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), that they fielded at the HuRT-C demonstration.
“The coordination among the three groups, there was a little bit of a rough patch and an adjustment period that we had to go through,” Class of 2021 Cadet Madison Teague, the HuRT-C overarching team lead, said. “Then, especially with COVID, we were hoping to get going at the beginning of the last semester, but then we had issues related to team members going into quarantine.
“Even with 14 people on the team, there were still days we only had five people who were able to go in-person to the lab,” she added. “We struggled a lot with personnel.”
Korpela added on the rough patches, “It has made it challenging for them, but we’re training leaders to be adaptive and overcome challenges and obstacles, even in this environment. Looking at this past year, despite the challenges, I think they’ve done a remarkable job being able to adjust.”
The cadets gave kudos to their senior advisors for their help leading through the murky, uneven moments. The main advisors mentioned were Dr. Novitzky (RRC), Korpela (EECS), Col. Steven Chetcuti (CME) and Col. Morales (SE), who were the officers-in-charge of their respective disciplines.
“Our advisors have been good in terms of advice,” Class of 2021 Cadet Andrew Mizell, the CME cadet-in-charge, said. “Without them, it would have been challenging for all of us coordinating our deliverables because we’re essentially trying to have 14 people accomplish the capstone for three departments simultaneously as opposed to doing one independent one. It’s definitely been challenging and very time consuming.”
Teague added, “We worked really closely with Dr. Novitzky and he’s definitely been the number one advisor that we’ve had.”
During the HuRT-C project, Teague worked the overall coordination among disciplines while Mizell coordinated with the Mechanical guys to work with the EECS Team to make sure that the platforms were up and running.
Teague and Mizell also worked together to ensure the presentations were ready to go.
Also in the mix, leading the EECS Team was computer science major, Class of 2021 Cadet Bryan Kim. His team worked different parts of the robot such as the object recognition, automation with ATAK, analyzing user placement with ATAK and networking during the first semester. Then the second semester was about assembling it.
“We made sure these devices were working, dependently on each other,” Kim said. “I would like to thank everyone in the EECS Robotics Center who individually helped us in some part of the devices, such as the hardware, code and documentation.”
Kim also spoke highly of his team members for the labor they put into making the project work.
“I want to say my guys have been working their butts off to make today happen, and I’m confident because of that our products will work,” Kim said.
Each of the cadets are excited about what this technology will mean in the future of small-unit operations in the years they will be on the battlefield.
“I believe it will be part of an infantry squad and infantry platoon in the future,” Kim said. “The technology is here. It minimizes the amount of people needed for a mission to be successful. If we can save lives and put robots in the front where we don’t have to risk people dying or getting injured during a mission, that’s a win for me.”
Teague spoke about how these unmanned systems can help increase situational awareness for a small-sized unit while giving it a broader view of what’s going on within the battlefield.
“Right now, (this technology) is used for pre-mission recon only, but we’re trying to implement it into reconnaissance and situational awareness growth for those squad-sized elements during a mission,” Teague said. “We would like to increase the information squad leaders have while they’re conducting a mission and make it easier for them, so we can save lives.”
Both Mizell and Kim had experienced working with unmanned systems before starting the capstone in August.
Mizell got a taste of it while working with the 75th Ranger Regiment over the previous summer.
“While working with the 75th Ranger Regiment, I saw their autonomous platforms with the UGV and UAS platoons they have,” Mizell said. “Working with them, I was incredibly excited to reach out to Col. Chetcuti to come join this (capstone).
“I continue to be incredibly excited watching these (platforms) continue to be integrated, especially being a future infantry officer and hopefully being able to employ some of these platforms myself,” he added.
Kim worked with last year’s HuRT-C capstone team, which included his opportunity to drive an UGV vehicle with the M240B attached on top.
“It inspired me to want to work with autonomous vehicles and robots,” Kim said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about managing technical people, communicating between different parts and making sure all the different parts of the robot worked together, and fixing any problems or issues.”
To Kim, even though it was a “roller coaster ride” of a capstone experience with the changes in design to the COVID situation and other factors, the results were what he most looked forward, too.
“I’m proud to see the work we’re doing today and I’m proud to see that our devices are working,” Kim said. “Hopefully, I’ll be proud in the future to see our devices make a step toward autonomous (platforms) in the military.”
Technically, all this work is meant to be a force-on-force competition at the end against Navy, but that part was canceled. However, from the past, current and future advances that come from what the cadets and midshipmen achieve from their projects, the relationship between the two academies is what will drive future progress in these platforms.
“Basically, (we are) leveraging the Army-Navy rivalry to kind of spur innovation. There’s no shortage of energy toward beating Navy, it’s in all our blood,” Korpela said. “(The Naval Academy) is doing the same type of research, development and innovation, but we’ve won more than lost in the competitions. However, they always come back stronger.
“We understand the rivalry helps spurs that innovation,” he added. “But we understand that we all graduate at some point and then it is joint problem (improving these future systems) and we’re all on the same team. The collaboration between the academies and the military pillars is key to that future success.”