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Little Robots, Big Chance To Shine

Competitions Help U.S. Army Choose Troops’Mini Machines

Jul. 15, 2012 - 04:03PM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
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This fall, the Pentagon’s anti-IED shop will be ready to start buying what could be thousands of small, man-portable robots for dismounted troops in Afghanistan.

The robots will be able to crawl into culverts, be tossed over walls, peek under parked cars and zoom around bends on footpaths to give soldiers a better idea of what they can’t see without putting themselves in danger.

The Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) has been testing four potential robot systems in Afghanistan all summer and by October will have the results, said Matt Way, program integrator at JIEDDO.

But the buy likely won’t be a windfall for just one company. Considering the multiple capability gaps identified by dismounted troops in Afghanistan, Way said, “there isn’t going to be a single system” that can meet all of them. Instead, it’s going to be a combination of lighter and heavier robots that can perform a variety of tasks.

The $22 million evaluation program kicked off in June 2011, when commanders in Afghanistan asked for smaller, lighter robots that dismounted troops could carry on patrol to help sniff out IEDs. JIEDDO initially identified six robots, but whittled that down to four to send to Afghanistan for a closer look.

In the running for contracts in the Ultra Light Recon Robot competition are the Armadillo, a 5.5-pound system made by MacroUSA; QinetiQ’s Dragon Runner 10, which weighs slightly more than 10 pounds; iRobot’s FirstLook, a 5-pound throwable robot; and Recon Robotics’ 1.2-pound Throwbot. JIEDDO sent 100 robots from each competitor to Afghanistan earlier this year.

But those are not JIEDDO’s only robot-related activities. The shop also played a big role in this year’s Robot Rodeo at the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, Ga., which took place June 20-29, assessing 75 technologies from 40 vendors running through three operational scenarios.

This was the third Robotics Rodeo conducted at Fort Benning. In years past, it was primarily an opportunity for companies to show the Army what they had been working on, but this year was different. The team at the Maneuver Battle Lab changed things up and took a page from the service’s Network Integration Evaluation exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas, which puts soldiers and technology in an operational setting to discover what works and what doesn’t.

Focus on Operations

The difference between this rodeo and the last one, said Ed Davis, Maneuver Battle Lab’s deputy director, “was we really pushed for operational demonstrations. Last time, industry kind of showed what they wanted to show and we had some static displays, but this time, we put them in an operational environment to get a sense of what we could do with them and what is actually possible.”

The JIEDDO assessment, which was slightly different from the maneuver lab’s program, was broken up into endurance, portability, disruption and reconnaissance evaluations, and the top performers of each category were announced July 16.

In first place for the endurance challenge was Torc’s Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate, which is essentially a reconfigured Polaris six-wheel-drive vehicle that can carry 1,800 pounds in autonomous mode. Endurance was all about being able to keep up with a dismounted patrol for an extended period, which is a big capability gap at the moment, Way said.

First place in the portable category, which means a soldier can comfortably carry it at least 200 meters, was Applied Research Associates’ Pointman LRV 2000.

Of the robots tasked with disrupting emplaced IEDs, HDT Robotics’ Protector with Mini-Flail took first place, QinetiQ’s Bobcat came in second and Mesa’s ACER took the third spot.

Finally, the reconnaissance event, which was the challenge most closely related to the Ultra Light Recon Robot competition, saw only one of the Afghanistan competitors in the top three. The top performer was iRobot’s FirstLook, while second and third positions were awarded to Applied Research Associates’ Pointman LRV 1000 and Place Boston Dynamics’ six-legged RHex robot.

When asked if the results will have an effect on the overall minirobot competition, JIEDDO spokesman David Small wrote in an email that the organization “is still working the data and how it can inform and be incorporated into on-going requirements/assessments.”

This was the first big robot shoot-off that JIEDDO had been involved in, and Way said the organization is interested in doing more because it has traditionally had difficulty explaining to industry “exactly what the problem set is … and it’s difficult to do that in briefings and meetings despite our best efforts. So what we’re looking to do is use how DARPA and other agencies have met challenges in the past, but on a smaller scale.”

The new operational orientation of the exercise can be seen as a nod toward the Army’s “agile process” model, which seeks to reinvent the traditional acquisition model of issuing requests for proposals, and waiting for industry to respond.

The exercise’s new focus is important mainly for the collaboration and the partnerships that it forges between different shops in the Army and industry, Davis said, “because it brings the communities together so we have a common basis for understanding and investing. This lets us synchronize efforts and focus priorities and identify with industry what we may or may not need.”

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