WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 30, 2011) -- The Army, Marine Corps and the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization are working to procure and deliver thousands of small, easily transportable "throwable" robots equipped with surveillance cameras designed to beam back video from confined spaces, buildings, tunnels and other potentially dangerous locations, service officials said.
"These robots can provide dismounted troops that extra bit of stand-off distance," said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, project manager, Robotic Systems Joint Project Office.
The Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JEIDDO, is in the process of responding to a joint urgent operational needs statement for an ultra-light recon robot capability to support dismounted operations in Afghanistan; combatant commanders are looking to receive an initial delivery of about 4,000 of the small robots, some of which are engineered to be thrown through a second-story window to provide "eyes" on a potentially hazardous combat situation, said Mathew Way, program integrator for Mitigate and Neutralize, JIEDDO.
After finishing up a market survey of which commercially-available technologies might be able to meet the needs of the JUONS -- and quickly conducting testing on numerous small robots designed to establish quantitative data with the National Institute for Standards and Technology -- JIEDDO chose three lightweight, "throwable" robots to run through a series of combat-assessments in Afghanistan.
Included among those systems are iRobot's 110 First Look robot, MacroUSA's Armadillo V2 Micro Unmanned Ground Vehicle, and QinetiQ North America's Dragon Runner .
About 50 of each of these robots will be deployed with forces in different parts of Afghanistan in order to assess the capability of the "throwbots" to perform across different types of combat terrain. The bots will be placed with infantry, engineering and explosive ordnance disposal units, among others, Way said.
"What we are going to try to do is give a sampling of every type of system down range across different regions of Afghanistan. More than likely there will be more than one system needed to answer this JUONS (Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement)," said Way.
The theater assessment in Afghanistan, called an "OCONUS" trail, or Outside the Continental United States, is aimed at informing development of requirements regarding the tasks the systems will be needed to perform.
"This OCONUS trial will give us the Soldier feedback that we need. This will allow us to go to industry and tell them what we want. JIEDDO can then use those precise requirements to support a rapid, open competition, to then field the final solution or solutions to fulfill the warfighter need," Way said.
At the same time, the Army-led RS JPO is coordinating efforts across the DOD and also working on developing, purchasing, and deploying several of the small, mobile "throwable" robots such as iRobot's First Look and the Recon Robotics Recon Scout XT Throwbot.
"This is an area of joint interest. JIEDDO has a large part of this, as does the Army's Rapid Equipping Force and the Marine Corps. We are all looking at similar systems. RS JPO is trying to do some coordination between all of these organizations and see if we can look at the systems that are out there, look at the requirements, and start to posture ourselves for the sustainment and the maintenance of these systems in the long term," said Thompson.
The anticipated value of the "throwbots" is in part driven by the frequency of dismounted small unit and squad patrols in Afghanistan, where Soldiers and Marines routinely check areas for IEDs and insurgent activity, Thompson explained.
At the moment, many units use the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle 320, a small tactical robot equipped with video reconnaissance technology that is 32 pounds. Still, there is a need for something that is lighter, more easily transportable by dismounted units on the move and able to be "thrown" into forward locations such as buildings and caves, Way and Thompson said.
The Recon Scout XT Throwbot, for instance, is only 1.2 pounds. The device is designed to withstand a 30-foot vertical drop and provide "eyes" or forward-positioned cameras able to capture images from dangerous locations. It is a small, barbell-shaped robot with wheels at each end of a titanium tube along with a camera, antenna and illuminator. The Recon Scout also includes an operator control unit with a small viewing screen and joystick. The Recon Scout is currently being acquired by the Army's Rapid Equipping Forces, or REF.
"The Recon Robot XT responds to the Soldiers' need to see where they're going before they get there. With this throwbot capability, warfighters gain situational awareness of an area, thus mitigating risks and casualties," an REF spokesperson said.
QinetiQ's Dragon Runner, originally developed for the Marine Corps, weighs about 14-pounds and includes cameras, motion-detectors and an optional small manipulator arm able lift about 10-pounds.
iRobot's First Look is about 10-inches long and weighs less than five pounds. The robot has four built-in cameras facing different directions and is engineered to withstand a 15-foot drop. It is waterproof up to three feet and is designed to climb steps as high as eight inches. The robot is configured like a miniature model of the well-known and widely used PackBot robot. The First Look's sensor payload includes cameras, thermal imagers and chem-bio radiation sensors.
The Armadillo V2 is also about 5-pounds. It has four small wheels, is built to withstand eight-meter "throws" and also includes multiple cameras and thermal imaging.