Army robot program earning good marks

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Oct. 23, 2002 at 7:46 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- A month's worth of cave-clearing missions in Afghanistan has done a lot to show American soldiers the utility of robots on the battlefield, a military official said Wednesday at a conference.

Army Col. Bruce Jette, director of the Rapid Equipment Corps, said senior officials decided to give robots from the Army Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency a chance to perform in the real world by deploying them for Afghanistan missions.

"This wasn't a concept of simply throwing some robots into the soldiers' hands," Jette told a group at the Association of the United States Army's annual meeting. "We knew there were going to be issues about being able to understand exactly what we needed."

Instead of waiting for the end of a planned four-to-six-year deployment schedule, Jette's team was ordered to see if existing models met minimal performance thresholds. The team introduced a couple of systems to teams clearing out cave complexes and buildings, he said, and was fully prepared to brief superiors on failures, which turned out to be unnecessary.

"We got (the robot), we brought it, and now we can't pry it out of (the soldiers') hands," Jette said.

The program was approved May 10 and wrapped up in late August, Jette said. Between July 2 and Aug. 1 this summer, the robots helped clear three bunkers, an ammunition cache, 26 caves, 3 buildings and a walled compound, he said.

An 82nd Airborne Division soldier, with only four hours' training, used a robot to clear 11 large caves in a day, Jette said. Soldiers could swap out regular video cameras and low-light systems on the primary robot when operating deep inside caves, he said.

Jette praised the enthusiasm and cooperation of the team's civilian contractors, who left the United States without a firm contract, which ended up being awarded three days later.

The key to the experiment was developing a single set of hardware and software to control a family of different-sized robots, which previously needed "a truckload" of equipment each, Jette said. The team worked with robot manufacturers and a systems-integration company to insert robot control features into the Army's Land Warrior wearable computer, he said.

The ultimate goal of the research is to create a downloadable software program "to turn Land Warrior into Robot Warrior," Jette said. Even though the prototype system relied on commercial-quality cables and other equipment instead of hardened military components, there were no problems using it in the gritty Afghan terrain, he said.

Such common-platform work is also underway outside the military, said Robin Murphy, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

"Everyone would like to see true 'plug and play' capability," Murphy told United Press International via telephone. "What we're really looking for is a common look and feel (for the robot interface)."

Because robots can have radically different structures and abilities, lack of commonality in the controls requires additional training for robot operators, and mistakes can still occur when a person switches platforms, Murphy said.

"It's like the difference between driving a car and a plane; you need separate skills that go beyond dealing with a new steering wheel," she said.

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