RDECOM is the Army’s autonomous technology enabler

TARDEC Chief Engineer and Senior Technology Expert for Robotics Dr. Greg Hudas (standing) and TARDEC research scientist Jeremy Gray test circuit boards from a Packbot robot being completely refurbished at the center’s Small Robots Laboratory.  As an STE, Hudas' principle focus is software development and autonomous controller device technology, both of which are being developed at TARDEC for integration into the new fleet of PackBot robots. (U.S. Army photo by Amanda Dunford)

TARDEC Chief Engineer and Senior Technology Expert for Robotics Dr. Greg Hudas (standing) and TARDEC research scientist Jeremy Gray test circuit boards from a Packbot robot being completely refurbished at the center’s Small Robots Laboratory.  As an STE, Hudas’ principle focus is software development and autonomous controller device technology, both of which are being developed at TARDEC for integration into the new fleet of PackBot robots. (U.S. Army photo by Amanda Dunford)

by Dr. Gregory R. Hudas, TARDEC Ground Vehicle Robotics chief engineer

The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command is synergizing research centers and labs under its command to create a robotics community that will enhance the Army’s ability to employ autonomy-enabled vehicle technologies to support the Soldier in every aspect of their operational life.

The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Ground Vehicle Robotics division is spearheading that initiative for the RDECOM community to create a Robotics Community of Practice, known as the CoP. The new Robotics CoP will speak with one voice coming from RDECOM to provide a concise message to the Army and Department of Defense customers we support. It’s all about removing redundancy across programs and collaborating a lot more closely as an enterprise.

The community charter, which is in the early development stages, will eventually help lay out the roles and responsibilities for each research, development and engineering center, whether that is by enabling autonomy, platforms, capabilities or usage. The CoP will also strive to achieve critical missions that regularly demonstrate evolutionary technology advancements, provide long-term data collection, promote open architecture across all stakeholder communities and strengthen those stakeholder partnerships. RDECOM needs the CoP to seek collaboration with key partners from academia, industry and the other service branches and federal laboratories to develop these autonomy-enabled vehicle technologies, and then demonstrate those systems, subsystems and capabilities to the user community ― our Soldiers and Marines. Our collaborative partnerships are crucial for strengthening governance, standards and collective strategy moving forward.

Within the Robotics CoP, each RDEC will contribute to RDECOM’s overall unified autonomy-enabled goals and objectives by focusing on their specified roles within the research and development community. Specifically, TARDEC’s role will be as both a community leader and as the RDECOM RDEC responsible for maximizing research, development, transition and sustainment of technologies across ground systems and ground support systems as it applies to autonomy-enabled and optionally-manned robotics.

The Army Research Laboratory, the Army’s corporate research laboratory, will apply its considerable expertise and leadership to assist the Army user in understanding the implications of autonomous technology on doctrine and in defining future needs of opportunities, especially in the area of robotic teaming of Soldiers and robots within the context of small unit tactical operations across a broad range of scenarios.

The Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center supports technologies associated with radio/digital/electronic/cyber areas that enhance command and control, communications, computational hardware, electronics and sensors.

The Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center provides research, development and engineering technology and services for aviation and missile platforms. Their expertise is particularly crucial for the Robotics CoP in developing unmanned air/unmanned ground platform teaming. In August 2014, AMRDEC, TRADEC and Lockheed Martin successfully conducted a fully autonomous resupply, reconnaissance, surveillance and target-acquisition demonstration using the Squad Mission Support System unmanned ground vehicle, K-MAX unmanned helicopter and Gyrocam optical sensor at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, an internationally acknowledged hub for the advancement of armament technologies and engineering innovation, will provide operational expertise on lethal and non-lethal payload technologies in accordance with the Robotic CoP’s mission needs and requirements moving forward.

The Edgewood Chemical Biological Center provides research and development technologies associated with chemical and biological detection, protection and decontamination. ECBC’s science and technology expertise has protected the United States from the threat of chemical weapons since 1917. Since that time, the Center has expanded its mission to include biological defense and emerges today as the nation’s premier authority on chemical and biological defense

The Robotic CoP’s final member, the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, maximizes the Soldier’s survivability, sustainability, mobility, combat effectiveness and quality of life by treating the Soldier as a system. NSRDEC will deliver world-class research, development, systems engineering and services, bringing a unique human-centric focus to the community as it explores the intricacies of Soldier-Robot peer-to-peer operations and capabilities.

The Robotics CoP will be the Army’s science and technology voice for autonomy-enabled systems and will bring together stakeholders, including the combat developers, acquisition community and test and evaluation community. Bringing the T&E community on board early is important because test procedures for robotics and autonomy are still very immature. As we make machines more responsible when dealing with humans in peer-to-peer relationships, the T&E expertise is critically important. They need to be involved with the S&T world very early on in the development process, because they will grant the safety releases and safety certifications for autonomy-enabled platform operations in the future.

TARDEC’s role as the Robotics CoP community leader will allow the overall organization to provide systems-level metrics back to Office of the Secretary of Defense R&D organizations. Simply put, when we start feeding system-level metrics back to our partners, we are helping to translate what they want into S&T terms that they can then push to the basic research areas. This will hopefully eliminate the dreaded ‘valley of death’ so when we develop something, it won’t end up sitting on a shelf some place.

In the end, a shared community of interest will provide RDECOM’s most important customer, the Soldier, with unprecedented world-class capabilities unmatched on the battlefield. We want autonomy-enabled and robotic systems to be a member of the unit. From a teaming aspect, it is a peer-to-peer relationship within the Soldier-as-a-system construct. Ultimately, warfighters will perform missions with robotic assets and they will treat those assets as peer equivalents, not as electronic slaves, dogs or mules. We’ve got a long way to go from both an R&D and S&T perspective to reach this dynamic end state, but RDECOM has assembled a community of expertise never before seen in the area of autonomous ground and air platform capabilities. Collectively, the Robotics CoP will embrace this opportunity to create collaborative partnerships to accelerate the delivery of new capabilities to the warfighter, while avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort and development costs along the way.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Greg Hudas is the Chief Engineer and Senior Technology Expert for Robotics at the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center at Detroit Arsenal, Michigan. He provides technical expertise and strategic support in all areas of robotics to senior Department of Defense and Army leadership. He holds bachelor of science, master of science and doctorate degrees in electrical and computer engineering with research emphasis in intelligent systems and control of mobile robotic systems. He has authored and coauthored over 40 technical journal articles and major conference papers, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Matt December, TARDEC Public Affairs, contributed to this article.