By David McNally, RDECOM Public Affairs
Future Army robotics systems will rely on open architecture, modular design and innovative concepts to perform missions from surveillance to wide area route clearance, according to Army officials.
“In the Army we always say, ‘never send our Soldiers into a fair fight,’” said Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Heidi Shyu said in the keynote address Aug. 13, 2014, to the National Defense Industrial Association Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference and Exhibition in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Hundreds of industry representatives, researchers and engineers gathered for the event, which provided a forum for the industry and government to identify technologies that will help meet future warfighter needs.
In 2004, the first full year of conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military deployed 162 robotic systems with a primary focus on explosive ordnance disposal, deterrence and removal. In the 10 years since, ground robotics in combat has grown exponentially. More than 7,000 systems are deployed overseas. The expanded mission portfolio includes route clearance, weaponization, chemical-biological detection and surveillance.
Shyu highlighted the six-ton M160 Anti-Personnel Mine Clearing System, which is designed for clearing mines in dynamic terrain like urban sites, fields, unimproved roads and muddy areas.
“This technology makes possible large-scale clearing and area neutralization operations rendering previously unusable roads and making them functional, and making possible missions in dynamic and contested environments,” Shyu said.
More than 300 mini-EOD robots are in use in Afghanistan by U.S. forces at a cost of $35 million. The robots help to locate, identify and disarm explosive and combustible mechanisms to neutralize roadside bombs, car bombs and other improvised explosive devices.
“This dynamic robotic system is truly saving Soldiers’ lives,” Shyu said. “That is the power of robotics.”
The U.S. military deployed more than 2,200 Talons to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. The robots, although a mainstay for EOD operations, are now past their service life. Army officials plan a bridging strategy to provide additional non-standard robotics through 2021 when a new system will replace the Talon.
The Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II, known as MTRS Inc II, is a remotely operated, man-transportable, robotic vehicle. The MTRS Inc II will provide a standoff capability to detect and confirm presence, identify disposition and counter hazards by providing a platform for payloads in support of current and future missions, officials said.
“This new system will address several shortfalls in terms of current capabilities today, namely the need for common chassis, or multiple mission payloads, which will reduce sustainment costs, logistics footprint and integration risks,” Shyu said. “This vehicle will leverage an open-architecture framework as opposed to the current closed system and a common upgrade path.
“The first phase in MTRS development seeks to leverage the existing common chassis while upgrading system sensors and payload capacity among other improvements,” she said. “We are working with our industry partners to develop a standard architecture, which will enable us to incorporate future capabilities rapidly, keeping pace with rapid and dramatic commercial improvements in this area. The proposed common robotics architecture will leverage platform independent autonomous ground vehicles and control of subsystems.”
Army robotics architecture will use open-source software to enable broad support in the software development community.
“It will also take advantage of open standards for data transmission,” Shyu said. “Our robotics modernization initiative will seek to leverage open architecture in a broad modernization strategy allowing us to take advantage of commercial advances and industry developments, while ensuring that robotics platforms are provided to our Soldiers at the lowest cost. We are at great pains to achieve cost savings wherever possible. No matter the physical environment, or the adverse circumstances, we all recognize the importance that ground robotics has provided in recent conflicts.”
The future of ground robotics depends on the ability of robots to operate in diverse and constrained environments, she said.
“Commercial autonomous vehicles can maneuver very well in defined roadways where GPS and maps are available,” Shyu said. “The Army has to navigate in diverse terrain, Including deserts, unpaved roads, rocky hillsides, jungles and urban terrain. We must also operate in adverse weather from snowy and icy conditions to sand-blown, triple-digit temperatures. In addition, we have to function in contested environments where jamming may occur. Efforts to overcome these challenges are essential. Nevertheless, despite tough operating environments, our robotics industry continues to innovate.”
Shyu said the future of ground robots is one of unlimited potential.
“Our opportunities for invention and innovation are only limited by our creativity and our willingness to take risks and embrace new challenges to protect and enable our Soldiers,” she said.