DOD seeks to expand its robot force

The Defense Department already has about 70 robots on bomb disposal duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Joint Robotics Office in the Office of the Secretary is preparing to buy 163 more for about $18 million, at the request of Central Command.

Cliff Hudson, head of the joint office, said today that DOD will 'down-select from five models to one or two for the field, based on operational assessments' by soldiers.

Speaking at a Washington briefing and demonstration by Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Remotec subsidiary, Hudson said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency fosters future robotics development, as in its recent Grand Challenge race, whereas his office 'applies maturing technologies in the real world.'

The joint office, formed in 1990 because Congress wanted the military services to take the same robotic development direction, has an annual budget of $35 million.

Hudson said the office invests in small robotic devices weighing 400 pounds or more, midsized ones of more than 2,500 pounds and large, heavy ones such as the Marine Corps' Gladiator multipurpose vehicle, which can fire weapons. The office also buys what he called 'smoke Humvees' that soldiers can dispatch to obscure areas of a battlefield.

'It's a heavily tactical environment now,' Hudson said. The $18 million procurement will buy Remotec's mini-Andros II; the Packbot from iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass.; the Vanguard MK1 from EOD Performance Inc. of Ottawa; the Talon from Foster-Miller Inc. of Boston; and the Mesa Associates Tactical Integrated Light-Force Deployment Assembly (Matilda) from Mesa Associates Inc. of Madison, Ala.

'The contractor response has been outstanding,' he said. Because Central Command's need is urgent, 'they have set their competitive interests aside.'

The robotic UMGs, or unmanned ground vehicles, 'give a critical standoff distance' for the soldier, Hudson said. 'Users are asking us for smaller and smaller robots that are easily transportable.'

DOD also is about to begin a study of UMG interoperability with unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as well as naval systems. 'The unmanned era is approaching very rapidly,' he said. 'Until now, we've had point solutions. They're going to have to become semi-autonomous or autonomous and tightly integrated. We need to produce them in quantity.'

Speed and weight have been the major complaints from soldiers who operate the robots remotely to disarm improvised explosives, said Mack Barber, president of Remotec.

Barber said that, by some estimates, there are 600,000 tons of unexploded ordnance in Iraq. Terrorists are inventing new ways of concealing ordnance in garbage or animal carcasses, he said, detonating it with cell phones or garage door openers, and even placing secondary explosives to kill soldiers who approach a device.

A robot sent to disrupt unexploded ordnance might spray it with a water jet, or grip and pull it apart to break wires, Remotec manager Patrick A. Goode said.

The company demonstrated the 230-pound, khaki-colored mini-Andros II climbing up and down stairs and grasping items in its 12-inch, 360-degree grippers. The battery-operated robot had four wheels, articulated tracks, three cameras, auto-iris light sensing and a 300-meter fiber-optic cable for direct operation. Usually, however, it is operated by radio signals. It can travel at about 2 miles per hour for about two hours, Goode said.

Remotec sold about 1,000 of the Andros model last year, Goode said, to DOD as well as to police and emergency response agencies.

Remotec added an extra locking joint at soldiers' request so the device could fold up for carrying in a Humvee, Barber said. The company has placed spare parts in Iraq and found it has to seal all openings tightly against sand.

'We can diagnose some problems remotely,' Barber said. But future robots that will travel faster than 2 mph 'need more intelligence to steer better.' Down the road, he predicted, military logistics will be simplified by robot convoys that can follow one human driver. And UAV sensors and communications advances will begin to appear on UMG platforms.

The mini-Andros II costs $70,000 to $200,000 on the General Services Administration schedule, depending on sensors and payload chosen.

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