The Joint Robotics Program Working Group meeting at the Sheraton Station Square Hotel in Pittsburgh, PA offered a window into current progress in robotics. EOD robots and reconnaissance robots such as the backpackable Dragon Runner “throwbot” are performing in Iraq, where they’re affecting the direction of future military robotics and saving soldiers’ lives.
The U.S. Marines deployed a dozen Dragon Runners to Iraq a year ago. The four-wheeled device is only a little more than a foot long and not quite a foot wide and weighs 9 pounds. It can be thrown over walls, out a three-story window or up a flight of stairs; the flat, 5-inch-high machine can operate whichever way it lands.
Cliff Hudson, who directs the Joint Robotics Program for the Department of Defense, notes that the Dragon Runner is doing very well, providing a safe means to look around corners or explore rooms. The Dragon Runners have become so effective, in fact, that the enemy has begun to target them. Ironically, Cliff Hudson has noted that one response to recon robots being targeted is to develop cheaper, expendable robots that he likens to radio controlled cars.
Mr. Hudson, your soldiers are way ahead of you.
Automatika Inc. licensed the Dragon Runner technology from Carnegie Mellon University. The company is building more Dragon Runners at the Pentagon’s request and is doubling production capacity in anticipation of a large order later this year.
The Iraq conflict has increased pressure to deploy battlefield robots, while also serving as a live test bed for the technology. “Throwbots” like the Dragon runner and UAVs like the Raven have performed extremely well, and explosive ordnance disposal robots have been the biggest success thus far. About 500 EOD robots are currently on duty, and several are credited with saving soldiers’ lives.
Larger robots are proving more challenging. Carnegie Mellon’s 1-ton Gladiator recon robot testbed has longer range, can carry weapons, and is eventually intended to operate autonomously. Robots of this kind are important components of the $120+ billion Future Combat System program, but that entire program has come in for sustained criticism of late.
Regardless of what happens with FCS, robots are here to stay on the modern battlefield. The Pentagon is working to develop the production base for robotics. Industry events like the Joint Robotics Program Working Group are part of that, as are mentor-protege programs aimed at matching the small, young companies that pervade the robtics industry with large, experienced military contractors (i.e. Lawrenceville’s re2 with Textron, Kuchera Defense systems with Raytheon).
Meanwhile, in order to crack the difficult problem of autonomous ground navigation, DARPA’s Grand Challenge race has taken a leaf from the private X-Prize, offering $2 million to the team whose driverless racer can both complete the 175-mile desert race course in under 10 hours, and win first place. No team came close to finishing the first Grand Challenge in 2004, but the Oct 8/05 event has 40 hopefuls (and produced some winners!).
UPDATE: The US government will spend about $1.7 billion on ground-based military robots between fiscal 2006 and 2012, said Bill Thomasmeyer, head of the National Center for Defense Robotics, a congressionally funded consortium of 160 companies. See AP report.
Additional Readings & Sources
* DID FOCUS Article – MTRS to the Rescue! RadioShack Replaced? (updated)
* UK MoD (Nov 18/08) – I-Balling the battlefield. This “throwbot” emerged from the Ministry of Defence’s “Competition of Ideas” in 2007.
* DID (June 1/06) – Mighty Mites: MARCbots Add Exponent to IED Land-Mine Detection. DID’s MARCbot anchor article.
* DID (Dec 21/05) – Radio Shack v2.0: Bombots, Start Your Engines! DID’s anchor article for coverage of this MarcBOT competitor, which was explicitly developed as a less-expensive alternative to MTRS.
* Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (June 09/05) – Battlefield robots saving lives, proving their worth in Iraq
* DID (May 18/05) – Remote Control Toys Used by Iraq Patrols
* Space Daily (Feb 14/05) – Carnegie Mellon, United Defense To Provide TUGV’s for US Marine Corps
* Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Feb. 11/05) – CMU Building Armored robot for U.S. Marines
* Winds of Change.NET (Jan 20/03) – MILTECH: From UAVs to “Throwbots”