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Pentagon Fast-Tracks Fielding of Israeli-Designed Robot

Oct. 20, 2013 - 11:58AM   |  
By BARBARA OPALL-ROME   |   Comments
This Israeli-designed stair-climbing micro robot has been earmarked for US special operators and explosive ordnance disposal teams.
This Israeli-designed stair-climbing micro robot has been earmarked for US special operators and explosive ordnance disposal teams. (Roboteam)
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TEL AVIV — The US Defense Department is fast-tracking deployment of an Israeli-designed, stair-climbing micro robot to support special operations and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) forces.

Designed by Roboteam, a small start-up firm based here, the Micro Tactical Ground Robot (MTGR) is being rapidly deployed to special operations forces, the US Department of Homeland Security and other users in parallel to ongoing operational tests by the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO).

CTTSO, the authority managing the interagency program on behalf of the US assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said it has earmarked 100 robots for “priority fielding” to special ops forces and EOD war fighters, while another 35 are destined for domestic use by interagency tactical units.

According to Roboteam executives, the MTGR weighs less than 20 pounds, carries its weight in payload and is built to clear obstacles, climb stairs and conduct complex maneuvers in extreme terrain.

Its five onboard cameras, internal microphone and infrared laser pointers generate intelligence and targeting data 360 degrees around the vehicle, while an encrypted radio streams secure voice and video to tactical operators and higher command staff.

“MTGR provides dismounted operators with capabilities to conduct dismounted [intelligence, sur­veillance and reconnaissance] and to identify IED threats in the field and urban multi-surface environments from safe standoff range,” according to the CTTSO website.

Fast-tracked testing and fielding of the Israeli-designed system is part of a 40-month CTTSO effort that extends through 2015 and is estimated to cost $15.7 million. Produced in the US by Roboteam’s McLean, Va.-based subsidiary, CTTSO-projected end-users include Army Special Operations Command, Naval Special Warfare Command, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and the Marine Corps combat engineer schoolhouse.

Family of Ground Robots

MTGR is the first of a family of tactical ground robots developed by Roboteam, established in 2009 as a boutique provider of optronics, robotics and intuitive imaging. Billed by the firm as the world’s lightest EOD platform, MTGR can be carried by a single soldier, travels at 2 miles per hour, climbs 8-inch stairs and has a line-of-sight operating range of 1,600 feet.

The platform, manipulator arm and various payloads are controlled by Roboteam’s Ruggedized Operator Control Unit, which it offers as a two-handed 7-inch Windows-based unit (ROCU-7) and a single-handed, 5-inch Android-based device (ROCU-5).

Yosi Wolf, co-founder and co-chief executive, said Roboteam is mass producing ROCU-7 and is finalizing development of ROCU-5, each of which will allow a single operator to control several unmanned systems simultaneously.

“Our controllers are generic, intuitively designed and simple to operate,” said Wolf, a six-year veteran of an Israel Air Force special ops unit. “Based on feedback from friends in the Israeli special forces, we made sure our touch screens could be operated while wearing gloves and night-vision devices. For day operations, we also made sure our displays are clearly visible in the brightest sunshine.”

Aside from the operational MTGR, Roboteam has developed a 2.5-pound, pocket-carried robot designed to work alone or within a team, with each interlinked through a secure, mobile network. Designed as a bodyless, hyper-maneuverable, hand-sized four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Individual Robotic Intelligence System (IRIS) generates 360-degree video while traveling at 3 miles per hour.

Company video shows forces dropping it through air vents and into tight underground passageways or tossing it into overhead balconies, where its video streaming provides situational awareness. It can operate for four hours within a 700-foot line of sight on replaceable AA batteries.

Shahar Abuhazira, chief executive at Roboteam North America, said the firm has already secured orders for IRIS from customers in Israel and abroad.

In an early October interview, Wolf cited smuggling tunnels and other underground threats as ideal missions for IRIS and MTGR, which can maneuver in tight spaces and uncertain domains where forces or even canine units cannot.

“A big challenge of ground robotics is operator perception. We need to understand what the robot sees because it is not intuitive,” Wolf said. “With IRIS, one robot is talking to the next by way of 360-degree zooming video, and we have a patented means of providing operators the full situational picture they need.”

The firm’s latest addition to its ground robot portfolio is Probot (Professional Robot), a 264-pound 4-by-4 that carries nearly double its weight in payload. Designed for logistics delivery, medical evacuation, ISR and a spectrum of public safety missions, Probot is deployed by a two-man crew and operates at 7.5 miles per hour at a line-of-sight communication range of 3,000 feet.

“It’s like having an additional two warriors as part of the squad,” Wolf said. “Two soldiers carry it off Hummers or other light vehicles, and it autonomously follows them on the mission.”

Grandma's House

Launched in late 2009 by Wolf and Elad Levy, former junior commanders of an Air Force special unit, Roboteam began business out of a small apartment owned by Levy’s grandmother in the suburbs here.

In less than four years, the firm has grown to 40 full-time engineers, with parallel production lines in the US and Israel supported by some 100 subcontractors from both countries. The young executives recruited as company chairman retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Uzzi Rozzen, a former executive at Israel Aerospace Industries with decades of experience in unmanned systems.

“We operate like a technological Seyeret Matkal,” Wolf said of Israel’s elite special operations unit. “Some 90 percent of our workforce has an operational background, with access to the Israel Defense Forces as our backyard for testing.”

In an Oct. 8 interview, Wolf and Rozzen said the firm operates against extreme development cycles aimed at translating ideas into production in less than a year.

“Our added value is the speed at which we can develop software and integrate technologies into ruggedized, reliable and very low-cost ground robots,” Rozzen said.

Roboteam is certified as an exporter by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, and works closely with the ministry’s Mafat research and development authority to design systems optimized for Israeli require­ments.

Udi Gal is a former MoD research and development official who brought Wolf and Levy to work with him at ODF Optronics, an imaging firm based here. He credited Roboteam for translating technological vision into a solid business base.

“I’m proud of any small role I may have played in their emerging success,” Gal said. “After only two years, [Wolf] became head of my robotics department. He has consistently proven his capability, integrity and technological drive.”

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