Military Robotics

 

 

Introduction

Robotics encompasses a broad array of technologies and although significant international efforts have been ongoing for years, finding satisfactory ways to use the enabling technologies of robotics in Military roles has been elusive. Military Robotics is the systems application of those enabling technologies in the unstructured, outdoor environment that is typical of Military operations.

Robots are typically used when a task is dangerous, tedious or dirty. Many commercial industries have successfully made use of robotic technology in well-structured environments such as manufacturing and in semi structured environments such as automated agriculture. To date, the use of robotics in the Military environment has been very challenging due to the technical requirements of the machine perception and control systems encounter in that complex and changing outdoor environment.

The unstructured outdoor environment represents the most difficult perception and control challenge for robots, in contrast to the relatively uncluttered environments of air and sea operations. Although many of the technologies that support robotics cross-pollinate very well between the elements, current research programs focus on niche areas of land based Military robotics.

Successful military missions are characterized by rapid response, minimal casualties and minimal hardware loss. The highest risk to military personnel typically occurs during intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and infiltration missions. The risk comes primarily from the chance of coming under enemy defensive attacks, contacting unexploded ordinances, and/or being exposed to alternative warfare weapons. To help reduce the risk to military personnel and equipment during high-risk missions, innovative and unique mobile robotic systems are being developed.  Various robotic systems can be fitted with multiple sensor packages to complete desired missions.

 

Technologies which enable the use of robotics in military applications include:

¨      Perception

Military robots must have accurate sensing of their environment, allowing the robotic system to perceive its surroundings, thus permitting controlled movement.  Visualization and offset sensing and measurement are key sensory inputs.

 

¨      Platform

The platform provides the locomotion, utility infrastructure and power for the robotic system.  The configuration has a very strong influence on the level of autonomy a system will achieve in an unstructured environment; highly configurable and mobile platforms are typically the best for unstructured terrain.

¨      Control

Hardware and software control elements provide a robot with the capability to act within its environment as perceived by the sensor array.  In addition to classic algorithmic control, increased levels of control sophistication such as hierarchical learning, adaptive control, neural networks and multiple robot collaboration are pursued to increase the level of machine intelligence.

¨      Human Machine Interface

As robotics mature from teleoperation to higher levels of autonomy, the requirement of the human machine interface changes.  Classical joystick and monitor control panels may be replaced with more natural means of communicating the desired goals to a robot.

¨      Communications

The use of existing or modified commercial communications equipment allows a robot to communicate within the vehicle to collect sensor data and control its actuators as well as with other robots and the human machine interface.

¨      Systems Integration

The choice of systems level architecture, configuration, sensors and components through conscientious design and simulation provides for significant synergy within a robotic system.  Well designed robotics systems will become self-reliant, adaptable and fault tolerant, thereby increasing the level of achievable autonomy.

Recent developments in the use of military robotics

¨     Articulated Robotic Scanner for Mine Detection

A tele-operated multi-sensor vehicle mounted landmine detector for low metal and non-metallic landmines.  Current sensor payloads include a metal detection array, an infrared imager, a ground penetrating radar and a thermal neutron activation detector.   Data fusion methodologies are used to combine the discrete detector outputs for presentation to the operator.

The conventional vehicle-mounted systems employ an array of sensor heads to provide a large cross-track detection profile.  For example. The Canadian Improved Landmine Detection

System uses 24 metal detector coils to cover a 3M swath.  It also uses 3 Ground Probing Radar (GPR) modules, each consisting of a number of antenna pairs to achieve the same coverage.  On the other end of the spectrum is the handheld detector that is manually swept from side to side by an operator while walking forward to cover ground.

An autonomous, mobile land robot, capable of adapting and responding to sensory input is the goal.  Recurrent neural networks and behavior-based architecture techniques are applied to a laboratory robot to investigate the possibility of machine learning and adaptive behavior.

¨     Spiral Track Autonomous Robot (STAR)

The Spiral Track Autonomous Robot (STAR) is a versatile and maneuverable multi-terrain mobile system that uses the latest available computer technology and two Archimedes screws, in contact with the local environment, to intelligently negotiate a hostile environment.

The STAR has several exciting characteristics that make it unique compared to other military vehicles such as jeeps, tanks, and trucks. The STAR is compact, measuring 38 inches square and 30 inches high; has a low center-of-gravity, which allows the system to climb steep terrains not possible by current military hardware; lightweight, weighing 175 lb.; and can be built for under $15,000. The cost of the STAR varies according to the attached sensor package. Mounted with the Micropower Impulse Radar (MIR) land mine detection technology the STAR becomes a low-cost sensor deployment vehicle. When further equipped with charge-coupled device video cameras and infrared sensors for multi-sensor operation, the STAR becomes a much more versatile and effective land mine detection system and unmanned reconnaissance vehicle. Placement of radiation and gas sensors transforms the STAR into a cost-effective solution for unmanned radiation detection in remote areas not easily accessible by conventional four-wheel vehicles. Equipped with heat sensing technology and audio microphones, the STAR can be utilized as a search and rescue vehicle in fragile and hostile environments.

One of the key features required of military vehicles is maneuverability. Unlike conventional four-wheel or track vehicles used by the military today, the STAR uses two Archimedes screws (one left-hand screw and one right-hand screw) in contact with the local environment to propel itself along the ground. Rotating the screws in different directions causes the system to move instantly in four possible directions and to rotate clockwise or counterclockwise from a standstill. Versatility in directional travel gives the system flexibility in achieving operation in extremely restricted quarters not accessible by the much larger pieces of surveillance and infiltration equipment. Furthermore, the Archimedes screws are constructed of hollow cylinders, which give the vehicle enough buoyancy to negotiate saturated terrain as well as rivers and streams.

The STAR is also equipped with a complete on-board electronic control system and wireless data/video links. The system is responsible for high-level decision making, motion control, autonomous path planning and execution. Inside the electronics enclosure is a central processing unit, motion controller and sensor card. Ultrasonic sensors are mounted around the external perimeter of the robot to provide collision avoidance capabilities during remote and autonomous operation.   All power is placed on-board the system to allow for missions involving distant travel. The complete electronic control system and software provide the STAR with enough intelligence to execute many decision- making operations typically required of military personnel.

As mentioned above, the STAR is capable of being operated remotely or autonomously. During remote operation, the operator controls the robot from a remote station using a wireless data link and control system software resident in a laptop computer. The operator is able to view the surrounding environment using the wireless video link and camera system. Remote operation mode is desirous when personnel must enter an unsecured hostile environment that may contain nerve gases, radiation or possible ambush attacks. During autonomous operation, the operator can pre-program a start point and end-point and allow the robot to accomplish the task without any user assistance. In a military (hostile) environment, autonomous operation would work well for cleaning up unexploded ordinances, reconnoitering, and patrolling secured areas.

The STAR is equipped with a differential GPS system for autonomous operation and the MIR land mine detection technology.  Plans are being developed for integrating other sensor packages.  It is being considered for use by the Angolan government for border enforcement and demining and by NASA for space exploration.

¨     Robotic Spy Planes

Recent advances in American Military technologies include the use of robotics for surveillance.   In addition to orbiting spy satellites, U.S. forces have been using small robotic aircraft to precisely map military targets in Afghanistan, survey the results of air attacks and maintain a continual watch over terrorist hideouts.   Just days after the September 11th attach, President Bush described the war on terrorism as “a conflict with opponents who believe they are invisible.  Yet they are mistaken.” 

For battlefield commanders, the most important tool in this new surveillance arsenal is the aptly named “Predator”, a robotic spy plan that uses radar and a variety of cameras to transmit live images in any weather, day or night, to ground control stations that may be hundreds of miles away. Unlike piloted reconnaissance jets or orbiting spy satellites, a single Predator also can "loiter" above hostile territory for more than 24 hours.

 

Through a secretive Air Force program that pushes rapid development of new technologies, Predators flying over Afghanistan also could be equipped with deadly air-to-ground missiles usually used to attack enemy tanks.  "It's a confluence of a lot of technologies that make these things so valuable at this time," said Chris Hellman, a defense analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.   To Hellman, what's more important than Predator's remote-control technology or radar-imaging capabilities is its data management system -- "being able to bounce signals off of satellites to ground stations in real time."

 

For the big picture, military commanders reportedly used the “Global Hawk”, a jet-powered drone that can fly at altitudes of more than 12 miles over hostile territory for up 36 hours.

 

According to a British defense industry publishing house, the U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan were preceded by the first operational deployment of the Global Hawk. The Global Hawk was designed in San Diego by Ryan Aeronautical, now part of Northrop Grumman. Only five prototypes have been built, and the Global Hawk is still conducting field tests. But in recent weeks, the Pentagon has moved to accelerate Global Hawk production and development by using emergency spending authority granted by Congress after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

 

The need for such technology became clear in the frustrating search for mobile Scud missile launchers during the Persian Gulf War. Since then, U.S. forces have gained more extensive "live-fire" experience.   Apart from providing military forces with around-the-clock surveillance of bin Laden's training camps and possible hideouts, an armed drone could launch an immediate missile attack if a target was spotted.  Until now, such drones have only flown unarmed reconnaissance missions. But the idea is hardly far-fetched.

 

Combat drones in 2003

As part of a broader plan to dramatically expand the capabilities of robotic aircraft, the Air Force plans to develop combat drones as soon as 2003. The Air Force reported that it made aerospace history on Feb. 21 in the first-ever missile launch by an uninhabited aircraft.   In field trials at Indian Springs, near Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, a Predator fired a laser-guided Hellfire missile that destroyed a stationary target. An Air Force spokeswoman at Nellis confirmed the second phase of the tests were completed just weeks ago, when Predators fired laser-guided Hellfire missiles against moving targets.

 

Although the aviation industry has developed a variety of reconnaissance drones, experts said the Predator has moved to the forefront because of its proven capabilities.    U.S. military forces have been sending Predators into hostile territory in the Balkans for more than six years. Predators also have been flying into Iraq's No-Fly Zone, where one of the aircraft was lost in August.   The cost of a Predator is  $3.2 million each

 

Still, the U.S. military hopes to dramatically expand the capabilities of what it calls UAVs, or Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles, by incorporating new technologies and developing new aircraft.  In the near future, the Pentagon plans to integrate the UAVs with other operations, so surveillance imagery from drones can be shared with sophisticated airborne surveillance aircraft such as the RC-135 V/W "Rivet Joint" and E-8 Joint Stars.

 

"Since you've got a real-time intelligence capability -- and real time is key -- it certainly would be valuable to recognize and communicate to your troops on the ground that they're walking into an ambush," Hellman said. The military also has tested the idea of controlling drones from the cockpits of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and OA-10 "Thunderbolt" tank killers.   Longer range plans call for using robotic aircraft in missions commonly categorized as "the dull, the dirty and the dangerous."

 

For example, UAVs offer advantages in performing airborne sentry duty ("the dull") because of their lofty vantage point and their ability to "loiter" for hours or even days. Drones equipped with sensors for detecting nuclear, biological or chemical warfare agents could reconnoiter contaminated areas ("the dirty"). Finally, armed UAVs could be used to suppress enemy air defenses in high-risk missions ("the dangerous") now flown by Navy Intruders or Air Force F-16s.

 

¨     Robotic Micro-Air Vehicles

 

No machine, not even a $100-million jet fighter, can match the airborne prowess of a fruit fly.  The tiny insect can swerve into 90-degree turns that would rip apart any aircraft. It can bound into flight even with a large part of a wing missing. If blinded, it can navigate using its other sensors.   To a close fraternity of researchers, the fruit fly may hold the key to one of aviation's boldest and perhaps most pesky challenges: to build tiny robotic airplanes known as micro air vehicles.  The speck-size fruit fly is the "most sophisticated flying animal in the world," said Michael Dickinson, a leading expert on bug flight at UC Berkeley. "Unless you totally destroy it, it'll get up and start flying again. If we can understand how they do that, I believe you can build almost anything better."

Since Leonardo da Vinci first envisioned a mechanical bird, inventors have been preoccupied with building aircraft that can go higher and faster while carrying ever-larger loads.   That great ambition has produced super-fast planes such as the SR-71 spy craft and super-large passenger jets such as Airbus' 555-seat A-380.   But now engineers are pushing in a radically different direction, trying to design aircraft so small that in a decade or less the proverbial "fly on the wall" may well become a technological reality.

All sorts of people are involved in the pursuit: college students tinkering with bat-like airplanes, professors studying hummingbirds, weapons developers and small aerospace firms looking for the next big product.  Proponents of micro aircraft say the uses for such vehicles are limited only by the size of a person's imagination.

 

Some envision them following a golf ball, giving television audiences a bird's-eye view of its flight. Others see them being used for more deadly purposes, such as carrying miniature bombs or toxins down the air vents of bunkers or caves.   Scientists at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena even believe that micro air vehicles could help NASA explore Mars for signs of life. Others foresee a use in homeland security.  A micro vehicle could be used as a video tracking device, following suspected terrorists or sniffing out potential chemical or biological threats.

 

For Pentagon strategists, tiny planes could help U.S. military personnel see individuals and small weapons hidden under trees or within buildings that spy satellites and the current generation of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft are unable to detect.   Pioneering research is being conducted locally at universities such as Caltech and UCLA and by companies such as AeroVironment Inc. in Simi Valley and Lockheed Martin Corp.'s super-secret Skunk Works laboratory in Palmdale.

 

Dickinson, for instance, will be moving his research from Berkeley to Caltech, where he says he will be able to tap some of the leading experts on aerodynamics.

 

One of the largest sources of funding for research into micro air vehicles has been the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. For several years, the agency has quietly funneled hundreds of millions into micro air projects, including Dickinson's fly research.

 

à    Robo-Seekers

Locally made robots are being used at the World Trade Center site in New York to crawl into holes that are too small or too dangerous for human searchers. They’re equipped with video cameras that give operators a view inside out of the way places, as well as infrared cameras that can detect body heat.

The “PACKBOT” is an experimental prototype that’s being developed with an eye towards military reconnaissance, and possibly bomb disposal.  Rescue workers in New York have been using the 2-foot-long robot to wiggle into tight, dangerous spots. 

The “TALON” is a multi-purpose robot frequently used by militaries and bomb squads for dealing with explosives.  It’s previously been used to handle unexploded bombs in Bosnia.  It is also designed to go on military scouting and reconnaissance missions.

à       Mules and Soldiers

Future Combat Systems (FCS) is a Defense Department collaborative involving the Army and the defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aimed at providing tools for battle that will make the Army “more strategically responsive, deployable, agile, versatile, lethal, survivable and sustainable . . .  from major theater wars through counterterrorism to homeland security,” according to the Defense Department. 

Boeing-SAIC was selected over three other contractor teams to head the development of new technologies for the Future Combat Systems project.  The focus of the project is to come up with a network of integrated systems that would include both manned and robot-controlled machinery, weapons and communications equipment.

The systems would be linked in battle so “they’d work together to take out enemy targets.” The ability to be transported quickly into battle and offer an array of tactical options often without ever putting the lives of troops in jeopardy will be required.   The Robotics Consortium of Boeing and the FCS teams have submitted proposals to take part in one-ton six-ton unmanned “mule” vehicles that could carry fuel, supplies, and weapons to troops; navigation and communication systems; and armed, unmanned ground reconnaissance vehicles.   The proposals also included robots that will be the “equivalent of a soldier”.

Conclusion

People have missed how robotics have been sneaking up on the world.  It is a revolution whose time has come.  Most people don’t realize how frequently robots already are used, from painting cars on assembly lines to operating missions in space.  Robots have been developed that can do anything from helping to cleanup hazardous waste sites to acting as autonomous tour guides.  

The enabling technologies of robotics will see increased adoption into Military roles.  Robotics in military applications may have a more far reaching effect to our personal safety and have greater global impact that any other type of robotics being used.  They are currently used by the military in land mine detection, surveillance, reconnaissance operations, and for daily mundane duties, but to name a few. 

As the price of computers decrease, the use and applications of robotics increase and robots become more intelligent.  Future research will continue to focus on the perception and control of robotic mechanisms and to increase the level of autonomy and utility for military applications.

 

 

References

http://www.llnl.gov/automation-robotics/award.html

http://www.llnl.gov/automation-robotics/mines.html

http://www.dres.dnd.ca/ResearchTech/Products/MilEng_Products/RD20003_ROBOTS/

http://www.llnl.gov/automation-robotics/1_star.html

http://www.llnl.gov/automation-robotics/mines.html

 

“Keen Eyes in the Sky”, San Diego Union-Tribune, October 10, 2001. Bruce Bigelow

“Fly on Wall May have an Engine”, Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2002 Peter Pae,

“Robots to the Rescue,” Boston Herald, September 20, 2001, Tom Kirchofer.

“Boeing Contract Benefits CMU, Red Zone”, Pittsburg Business Times and Journal, April 19, 2002, Christopher Davis.