I’ll start this with a big tip of the hat to DARPA and its director, Dr. Tony Tether, who has one of the world’s best jobs. Not only do they push the bleeding edge and come up with clever ways to engage the research community in their endeavors, but they run well-managed events with a flair for showmanship that belies their status as a government and military agency. As an example of the latter, they had arranged for the Urban Challenge webcast and on-site video to be co-hosted by Jamie Hyneman and Grant Imahara of Myth Busters, the techie crowd’s favorite TV show.
They also have the guts to invite in the world press and the general public while trying something new to the world: Turning multiple autonomous vehicles loose on city streets at the same time, interspersed with human drivers. As Tether said at the start of the program, “If anyone tells you he knows what’s going to happen, he’s lying.”
Since that test could likely take every bit of a short November day, the teams, staff and press assembled for their briefings at a chilly and dark 0600 hours. The day featured robot traffic jams, the world’s first ‘bot vs. ‘bot collision, and the Terramax robot truck’s attempt to take out the old air base PX.
Goodrich Corp. subsidiary Sensors Unlimited Inc. in Princeton, NJ received a $1.25 million increment of a $5.7 million cost plus fixed fee contract to develop extremely small, lightweight, shortwave infrared imaging sensors on a chip. They’ll be used in helmet-mounted and micro air/ground vehicles.
The primary goal of this program is to establish the micro-systems technology for extremely light weight, low power cameras with the performance necessary for medium to short range applications. Micro-air and micro-ground platforms and helmet mounted applications require some special features: sensor operation at room temperature or with extremely low power cooling and temperature stabilization, micro-packages with operational lifetimes consistent with military operations, and optics and electronics consistent with the platform. DARPA specifically excluded research targeted at evolutionary improvements; innovations in optical and detecting materials, sensor design and fabrication, signal processing, and micro-packaging will be necessary to achieve their extremely light weight goals.
The first phase of the program will demonstrate the feasibility of integrating an imaging array into a micro-package of the size and weight necessary, with measured data supported by models and calculations predicting performance. Options may be exercised to continue the program after this initial demonstration; if they’re exercised, the second phase will feature a feasibility demonstration of an integrated system. Work will be performed in Princeton, NJ (93%), White Plains, MD (3%), and Woodland Hills, CA (4%) and is expected to be complete February 2009. Funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. DARPA posted Broad Agency Announcement BAA06-46 “Micro-Sensors for Imaging (MISI)” on the Federal Business Opportunities website on Oct 3/06, and 10 proposals were received (HR0011-08-C-0011).
The US Army’s $120+ billion Future Combat Systems program has been subject to a great deal of criticism over its history. It was always planned as a development process with staged spinoffs, but a combination of pressure on the program and the field needs of the troops on the front lines is pushing that schedule. As FCS hits the 2 1/2 year mark in its System Design and Development (SDD) phase, there are plans to start delivering some of its elements beginning in 2006, for fielding and then upgrading as the program continues.
According to eDefense Online, the spinouts will occur progressively but can be broadly grouped into four main waves for timing purposes:
Small business qualifier Boston Dynamics, Inc. in Waltham, MA has received a $10 million completion-type, cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to build a dog-like robot with the capability to run fast, traverse trough terrain, jump over obstacles 1 meter (40″) tall or 2 meters wide, and operate for 2 hours without refueling. The goal of this effort is to create legged robots that mimic animal structure, mechanics and control, in order to achieve animal-like strength, speed and mobility. The priority application is a robot that could eventually accompany Marines and other troops in the field as a load-carrier across nearly any terrain. This 15-month contract also includes 3 one-year options which would bring the cumulative value of this contract to $40 million if exercised.
The US Army held its 5th annual “top 10 greatest inventions” ceremony recently in Arlington, VA, recognizing the Top 10 inventions of 2006. The top picks were chosen by Soldiers from active-Army divisions and the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command according to three criteria: impact on Army capabilities, potential benefits outside the Army and inventiveness.
Three of this year’s top inventions are geared toward defeating IED land mines, and there’s even one tracked armored blast from the past. Most inventions have already been fielded to soldiers on the front lines.
Northrop Grumman subsidiary Remotec, Inc. in Clinton, TN received a $45 million firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for robotic systems, accessories, spare parts, depot level repair support, and operator and technician training. Work will be performed in Clinton, TN and is expected to be complete in February 2011. This contract was not competitively procured by the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD (N00019-07-D-0013).
A proliferation of UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) robots and waldos heads for the world’s conflict zones. Back in America, DARPA’s Grand Challenge dared inventors to produce a true robotic vehicle that could navigate a per-set course with no human assistance. Now Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) is offering one million Singapore dollars ($652,000) in the TechX challenge to whoever develops a robot that completes a stipulated set of tasks related to urban warfare.
In July 2005, Lead Systems Integrators (LSI) Boeing and SAIC awarded 4 contracts to 3 premier industry partners for the first phase of development for 2 classes of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as part of the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. The contracts range in value from $3 million to $5 million, and the UAVs were slated for fielding in 2014 with the first fully-equipped FCS brigade-sized combat teams.
Or not. A January 9, 2007 release from US Army indicates that its Class II and Class III UAV programs are not slated for deployment, and existing UAVs (the RQ-7 Shadow and Warrior / ERMP UAV currently in development) would fill those roles. This is extremely bad news for rotorcraft manufacturer Piasecki, who was hoping for a win to bring its innovative rotary technologies into the mainstream and give the firm itself the same kind of “serious presence status” accorded its founder. The decision will also have an impact on other firms, and it’s worth a quick look at the new and existing UAVs affected by this move:
Following a recent settlement that saw British forces receive 30 iRobot Packbots, Northrop Grumman subsidiary Remotec UK Ltd. has been appointed prime contractor for Phase II of the Ministry of Defence’s CUTLASS program to field the next generation of robots for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). These vehicles will be be used by the MoD for anti-terrorism operations worldwide, as well as EOD operations at home that have featured 120mm shells as doorstops and mortars in wardrobes. The contract’s value is about GBP 65 million (currently about $128 million), and the MoD release fixes the number of robots at 80. The bulk of deliveries will take place in 2010, with a phased introduction into service thereafter.
Partners in the CUTLASS program include QinetiQ (user-friendly operator command console, they also own TALON robot maker Foster-Miller) and LSC Group (logistics support effort, risk management and tracking activities). Remotec is a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman with locations in Coventry, UK and Clinton, TN, USA.
The CUTLASS will be the primary replacement for Remotec’s “Wheelbarrow” design that has been in use in Northern Ireland since the 1970s. It offers the latest technology in a modular design, making it capable of accommodating a wide range of payloads, sensors and tools. The manipulator arm is equipped with a state-of-the-art gripper and has 9 degrees of freedom for greater movement and agility inside limited spaces, such as the interior of a car. The robot can either creep along at deliberately slow speeds for delicate operations, or accelerate to high speeds to enable rapid travel. The six-wheeled design offers mobility on all types of hard and soft terrain and in all weather conditions. See Northrop Grumman/ Remotec release | UK MoD release.