In September 2011, iRobot Corp., Bedford, MA, was awarded a 5-year, $60 million firm-fixed-price indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for up to 300 PackBot Robot Systems, plus sustainment parts, repair, maintenance, and training. This contract can be used to deliver Foreign Military Sale channel orders, and iRobot says that has delivered government and industrial robots to customers in approximately 30 countries so far. In response to requests, Rrobot told DID that this new contract will allow the government to procure commercial Packbot systems, and does not fall within military MTRS or SUGV contracts.
Work will be performed in Bedford, MA, and the contract runs until July 27/16. One bid was solicited by the RSJPO (Robotic Systems Joint Program Office), with 1 bid received by U.S. Army Contracting Command in Warren, MI, who manages the contract (W56HZV-11-D-0093). See also iRobot release.
Latest updates: With SUGV pending wind-down, early materials order for SUGV sets 2-3.
BCTM B-Kit in Hummer
Concerns about cost overruns, vehicle design, and contract structure prompted the Pentagon to cancel the US Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) program in June 2009.
Instead of a single FCS contract, the Pentagon directed the Army to set up a number of separate programs to undertake parts of the FCS program. One of those programs is the Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM) Increment 1. The BCTM Increment 1 capabilities – which include ground robots, UAVs, ground sensors, and vehicle (B-Kit) network integration kits – were planned to be fielded to up to 9 Infantry Brigade Combat Teams beginning in 2011. Now it’s more like 2015 for the 1st brigade, and it will happen without most of the original components.
Looking like a robotic mule, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will carry 400 pounds of equipment for US soldiers and Marines over rugged terrain inaccessible by vehicle – terrain like the mountains of Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, US soldiers and Marines can carry 50 pounds of equipment, and in some cases over 100 pounds, for long distances over difficult terrain. According to DARPA’s plan, the LS3 will be capable to carry 400 pounds of payload for 20 miles in 24 hours.
And the good news is that system can take care of itself. LS3 will be fully autonomous, able to perceive the terrain and adjust its movements accordingly. Fully loaded, the LS3 will weigh no more than 1,250 pounds.
To get the program off the ground, so to speak, DARPA recently awarded a $32 million, 30-month contract [pdf] to Boston Dynamics of Waltham, MA to develop LS3 prototypes.
QinetiQ North America subsidiary Automatika recently announced a GBP 12 million (about $20 million) urgent operational contract from the UK’s Ministry of Defence to supply almost 100 of its small Automatika Dragon Runner robots, associated spares and technical services, for use in Afghanistan.
Dragon Runners are small, backpack-carried 10-20 kg/ 22-45 pound robots whose basic chassis is less than a foot square, allowing them to operate in environments ranging from sewers and drainpipes to caves and courtyards. They are smaller than the USA’s MTRS robots, and more comparable to smaller models like the BomBot and Marcbot. The variant selected by the UK MoD is equipped with a manipulator arm to assist with the disarming of improvised explosive devices, but Dragon Runner can be configured for a variety of other reconnaissance and surveillance operations, such as perimeter security, checkpoint security and the inspection of suspect vehicles.
The US Army Tank-Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) awarded 16 omnibus contracts to support its research and development (R&D) efforts encompassing the life cycle of military manned and unmanned ground vehicles. The contracts have a total potential value of $430 million.
TARDEC is the Army’s laboratory for military automotive technology and the lead agency for simulation and testing, demonstration, development and full life cycle engineering for ground vehicle survivability, robotics, power and energy, mobility, maneuver and sustainment, and condition-based maintenance.
The 5-year indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts were awarded for TARDEC omnibus services under multiple award task order (MATO) arrangements to the following companies:
Like a swarm of angry bees, unmanned aerial, ground, and sea vehicles automonously converge on enemy troops, aircraft and ships, decide what to do, then engage the enemy with surveillance or weapons to help U.S. forces defeat them. All this without direct human intervention. Sounds like science fiction? The American military is one of several working on the technology, called “swarming,” in order to make this scenario a reality.
According to the SWARMS project at the University of Pennsylvania, future military missions will rely on large, networked groups of small unmanned vehicles and sensors. Groups of this type will typically operate with little or no direct human supervision most of the time. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee individual management or control in the kind of dynamic, resource-constrained, adversarial environments that characterize human warfare. Managing such large groups will thus be extremely challenging, and will require the application of new, yet-to-be-developed methods of communication, control, computation and sensing, specifically tailored to the command and control of large-scale, autonomous vehicle groups.
DID has more on a recent NAVAIR contract, and the swarm concept…
Research and Development is essential to any national technology base, and to the health of its defense industrial base. The USA is a global research leader, and some of its efforts have created international infrastructure – like the internet. In other cases, it has been a matter of adapting existing civilian research like low-power, flexible displays for military use. For smaller nations like Canada, Australia, et. al. R&D budgets are smaller, and so funded research must be more focused.
Australia’s Capability and Technology Demonstrator (CTD) Extension Program aims to take existing DSTO research projects to higher maturity levels for operational./ commercial evaluation, in a manner similar to the USA’s SBIR Phase III awards. Australia’s Minister for Defence Science and Personnel Warren Snowden recently announced 4 winners in this area:
Something big is going on in the history of war, and maybe even humanity itself. The US military went into Iraq with just a handful of drones in the air and zero unmanned systems on the ground, none of them armed. Today, there are over 5,300 drones in the US inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground. And these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords compared to what is already in the prototype stage. This is what is happening now. Peering forward, one Air Force lieutenant general forecast that “given the growth trends, it is not unreasonable to postulate future conflicts involving tens of thousands.”
For my book Wired for War, I spent the last several years trying to capture this historic moment, as robots begin to move into the fighting of our human wars. The book features stories and anecdotes of everyone from robotic scientists and the science fiction writers who inspire them to 19 year old drone pilots and the Iraqi insurgents they are fighting. The hope wasn’t just to take the reader on a journey to meet this new generation of warriors–both human and machine, but also to explore the fascinating, and sometimes frightening, political, economic, legal and ethical questions that our society had better start facing in how our wars will be fought and who will fight them. In other words, “What happens when science fiction becomes battlefield reality?”
Despite all the enthusiasm in military circles for the next generation of unmanned vehicles, ships, and planes, there is one question, however, that people are generally reluctant to talk about. It is the equivalent of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, the issue That-Must-Not-Be-Discussed. What happens to the human role in war as we arm ever more intelligent, more capable, and increasingly more autonomous robots?
What happens when advances in modern electronics mean that sensors like imaging-class radars, advanced day/night cameras, and even more exotic items like hyperspectral sensors, laser radars, etc. are no longer very expensive items that are mounted on dedicated platforms? When a wide array of video cameras, surveillance turrets, ubiquitous radar capabilities, and other systems built into vehicles, aircraft, ships, and unmanned vehicles provide an explosion of sensor data – just as a range of databases related to human patterns or physical infrastructure are also appearing on the scene, in numbers.
In part, it is similar to what happened when the Internet went from an academic platform to a global phenomenon. The good news was, so much more information became available. The bad news was, finding the things we were looking for started to involve a lot more work.
The military has this same problem with sensors, only worse. Most of the time, they’re not necessarily looking for discrete answers, but for an overall picture of what’s going on. That becomes hard as sensors move from a small number deployed on dedicated platforms, to hundreds or thousands of them employed in platforms of every shape and size. For some applications, like domestic security or protecting certain key areas, it gets even harder. The need to include physical surveillance, communications surveillance, information about human activities, and improved geo-awareness all combine to produce a maddeningly complex task.
Moore’s Law of doubling computing power, and Metcalfe’s Law of exponential network power, created this data explosion. Several cycles later, the military is hoping it can begin to offer assistance, by turning massive arrays of data into coherent systems that help humans respond at the speed of events. The first step was data fusion. The next step was sensor fusion. The third step is information fusion… and the US Navy has just set up a center to work on it.
The USA’s $160+ billion Future Combat Systems program aims to replace at least 1/3 of the USA’s land forces. The program’s original mandate had its components replacing the USA’s heavy armor, but that plan collided with the reality of front-line experience in Iraq. FCS is now slated to be a set of medium forces that are slightly more deployable than a Heavy Brigade Combat Team, but still cannot fit into the C-130s that are expected to make up the USA’s tactical airlifter fleet. The concept of an integrated set of vehicles, robots, sensors, and UAVs, all backed by a high-performance network, remains.
The US Government Accountability Office has been asked to report on the program every year, and its 2008 report suggests that FCS is reaching a critical stage on 2 fronts: system design and development, and software design and development. Their overall 2008 report says that…