FORT BENNING, Ga. (July 17, 2012) -- An unmanned ground vehicle makes its way across the field and suddenly slows, its sensors activated by a threat buried beneath the ground. A mechanical arm lowers, blades whirring and kicking up dirt as it searches for land mines and improvised explosive devices. A loud report and a shower of sparks fill the air as the threat is discharged.
The above scenario took place at Fort Benning, Ga., during the 2012 Robotics Rodeo held June 20-29, 2012. The event allowed manufacturers to showcase the latest robotics technology designed to defeat battlefield threats, especially improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs. Robotics technology has been vital in allowing Soldiers and Marines to detect and defeat these devices from safe standoff distances during overseas contingency operations.
The Rodeo enables Maneuver Center of Excellence, or MCoE, Soldiers to "test drive" the latest unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs, and offer feedback based on their recent deployment experiences.
This year's Robotics Rodeo was co-hosted by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center; the Army Capabilities Integration Center; Fort Benning's MCoE; and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, also known as JIEDDO . The organizations gave private industry and academic researchers an opportunity to present their latest technology to system users and discuss potential collaboration with Army leaders.
Over the past decade, the use of UGVs in theater has greatly increased, providing Soldiers with enhanced capabilities to safely conduct reconnaissance missions, route clearance and threat defeat. As threats evolve and Soldiers prepare for missions in new areas of operations, advanced robotics technology will be needed to meet emerging needs.
"In the 1990s, there was this flawed assumption that with the integration of surveillance, communication and information technologies, we could achieve a high degree of certainty in war," remarked MCoE Commanding General Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster. "What we've learned in the past decade of war is that countermeasures exist for everything. The real key is to have a broad range of capabilities that can be integrated into combined operations."
JIEDDO's partnership in the Robotics Rodeo underscored the importance of finding new, innovative ways to defeat these hidden, life-threatening devices.
"Some of the work I see in our own lab really emphasizes how to use robotics technology in order to defeat IEDs," said Jim Overholt, TARDEC senior research scientist for robotics. "We were happy to partner with JIEDDO to bring them in and look at what we can do to help them out in the area of IED defense."
Many technologies highlighted during the Rodeo dealt with IED detection and defeat, and were demonstrated for industry and government representatives. But the real test will come when these systems are placed in the hands of Soldiers in real-world situations.
"There are thousands of good programs out there, but few great ones. The few great ones make it out to the operator and are effective, efficient and they work," explained Maj. Gen. Austin Miller, JIEDDO deputy director. "A great solution is something that works in the field. What we're all trying to do here is harness the great and innovative ideas and connect them to the operational arm as quickly as possible."
MORE THAN EXPECTED
During the Robotics Rodeo, industry representatives showcased their technologies to users and potential partners through challenges and vignettes, operational demonstrations and technical displays. Army dignitaries toured the grounds and spoke with technologists to better understand how these new capabilities could best serve Soldiers in dangerous operational environments.
"Everything I've looked at has been exactly what I expected, but more," remarked TARDEC Interim Director Jennifer Hitchcock. "There are so many different capabilities out here today that I think we can get into the hands of Soldiers, and we just have to figure out how to do that."
One tool that could allow Soldiers to detect and defeat threats is an Automated Mine Detection System from Carnegie Robotics. Working off a TALON platform, the UGV allows Soldiers to search for potential IEDs and mines from a safe distance.
"It looks for threats of all types and covers the whole gamut," remarked Carnegie's Daniel Beaven. "It proceeds ahead autonomously, sweeping the ground. When it finds a threat, it gives the operator an indication so they can weigh in on what they see and make subjective assessments. Then it injects a dye into the ground to mark where the threat is to be removed by a team coming around later. We can also attach a payload to discharge and destroy the threat."
In addition to IED defeat, Overholt remarked that TARDEC was interested in technologies that advance autonomy, enhance mobility, bring in common controllers or show greater teaming between systems. iRobot's First Look system, which features a mesh network that links three different systems and features a lightweight common controller, has the potential to enhance communications and expand operations.
"Communication is a huge problem. To meet that need, we've put mesh-networking software on all First Looks and SUGVs [Small UGVs]," explained iRobot's Orin Hoffman. "If you drive the First Look out and you need to go around a building or in a culvert, you can plug into another platform, drive it down range and it will act as a radio repeater for the First Look, letting them get deeper into the non-line-of-sight situations that are such a huge part of the counter-IED requirement. We also took the dismounted controller that ships with the First Look and now we're able to control a family of robots. They're all meshed together."
Many demonstrations combined the improved technological capabilities sought by TARDEC with the ability to defeat IEDs and other threats. One such system was the Harris Robotics Red Hawk. Like other technologies on display, Red Hawk uses haptic [tactile] manipulation to provide realistic force feedback to controllers as they manipulate systems, allowing them to feel what the robot feels and more accurately defeat threats.
"There are four sensors that measure the contact forces so the haptic controller exerts the same force on your hands. The operator feels that force and the motion control mimics their movement. It essentially turns the robot into an extension of your own arm," said Paul Bosscher, Harris Robotics engineer.
"It's targeted at the EOD, or Explosive Ordnance Disposal, mission, where you need to have precision to defeat and dismantle an IED. However, we've also gotten a lot of support and interest from the Chem-Bio guys who need to go in and sample things. Infantry has shown interest too, if you need to use a robot in an area that's a threat, you can use the robot to put a key in a lock and open the lock and access a building without putting a Soldier there."
But the Robotics Rodeo is more than just a science and technology demonstration, it provides invaluable opportunities for industry and government partners to openly dialogue, understand needs and begin working toward solutions as a community. While some of the technology may not be ready-for-theater at the moment, the relationships formed at events like this become the catalyst toward matching new technologies with battlefield requirements.
"The networking is overwhelmingly positive," said James Mullins, an engineer with Australian academic participant Centre for Intelligent Systems Research, or CISR, which also displayed new haptic control systems. "This is a cutting-edge technology and the feedback that we're getting is that it will take off. It's just a matter of time."
Many of these new technologies showcase new ways to pair Army needs with emerging capabilities. NaviStar displayed a MaxxPro mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, known as an MRAP, equipped specifically to carry EOD robots and support IED defeat missions. The system caught the eye of Army officials who talked with NaviStar representatives about using one of their most successful systems to keep Soldiers safe and more effective.
"Purposeful designs are becoming more prevalent as robots have a larger position in the Army," said NaviStar's Brad Manson. "For the EOD role, the MRAP's very useful, because the vehicle's designed to take an IED blast from the ground up. If you're going to where the IEDs are and taking a robot with you, this is the truck to take you there."
The opportunity for collaborative discussion makes an event like Robotics Rodeo so fruitful and allows the Army to continue valuable partnerships, Miller said. "It's not a marriage that just comes together naturally," he concluded. "What I'd say to our partners in industry and academia is: 'we can't do it without you.'"