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Robotics Rodeo puts unmanned tech front and center

The U.S. Army hosts a robotics showscase and challenges the industry to develop more robots to fill combat needs.

Mark Rutherford

FORT HOOD, Texas--Soldiers and civilian contractors braved the heat here this week for the first Robotics Rodeo to view and interact with a long lineup of robot systems and to give feedback on which ones could potentially find a place in the U.S. Army's robo stable.

Despite the hundreds of military robots that show up in concept or as prototypes on company Web sites and corporate reports, humans still do the fighting on the ground and it's likely to stay that way for a while. However, there's a growing niche for "the dirty, the dull, and the dangerous" jobs where robots could take over. In fact, it's the law. The 2001 Senate defense authorization bill mandates that "one third of the operational ground combat vehicles of the armed forces will be unmanned by 2015."

The Army wants robotic researchers, developers, and manufactures, many of whom have collected millions in government seed money and grants over the years, to get off the dime and start delivering (PDF).

"If you're not fielding, you're failing," said Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, Fort Hood commander and co-host of the Robotics Rodeo.

Lynch cites the rapid advancements made in fielding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

"Most folks are familiar and comfortable with (UAVs), and we've shown over eight years of combat just how critical those systems are to the warfighting effort when properly used and integrated," Lynch said. "There are hundreds of other robotic concepts that could also be useful to our Army and this Robotics Rodeo will showcase some of those--it's a great educational opportunity."

The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and Fort Hood III Corps invited more than 40 vendors to attend the rodeo and show off their wares.

In terms of priorities, clearance of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) tops the general's wish list. Other needs include programmable unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to patrol and make deliveries on planned routes or conduct "persistent stare," i.e. long-term surveillance missions.

"The enemy often places IEDs in the same locations that he has used in the past. A robotic system that can observe these locations for a prolonged period of time and alert us of a significant change would be of great value," Lynch said. One of true tests would be a UGV that acts as a robotic wingman or can assume a role as a member of a squad.

However, most UGVs in service today are limited to detecting and defusing IEDs. Concepts to broaden their uses are many, but it's unclear how practical and feasible they are. In any case, much of the technology on display at the "rodeo" is commercial off-the-shelf--some of it already in use in private industry.

So what's keeping the stuff on display from becoming standard issue? Three letters--ONS--according to vendors.

If there's an urgent need for equipment, a general officer may step forward and submit an ONS, or Operational Needs Statement, to get the ball rolling. No one is willing to do so, vendors complain. For example, the Qinetiq rep says his modular advanced armed robotic system (MAARS) could be ambushing IED-planting bad guys right now, but for the paperwork (PDF).

The true test: be the first to sign off on a M240B machine-gun-mounted UGV.

Qinetiq's Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS). Mark Rutherford