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U.S. Robots Surge Onto the Battlefield

March 2008
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
One of the 20 platforms managed by the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO), the Throwbot reconnaissance robot weighs less than a pound and is the size of a soda can. Designed to be tossed into windows and through doorways, and equipped with a video camera, the system is controlled by a handheld unit to scout ahead for booby traps and ambushes in urban operations.
Government office manages, maintains growing inventory of military machines.

Unmanned ground systems have become a vital tool for warfighters operating in Southwest Asia. Initially deploying a handful of machines, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps now deploy thousands of robots into the theater. Ranging from tiny scouts designed to be thrown into windows to remote control mine clearance vehicles, these platforms have saved many lives by replacing soldiers in dangerous jobs, including ordnance disposal and reconnaissance.

The organization responsible for managing, sustaining and maintaining these unmanned platforms is the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO), Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. The RSJPO originated in 1989 as a response to congressional requests for military robotics research. The office was formed under a memorandum of understanding between the Marine Corps and the Army, explains Duane Gotvald, RSJPO deputy project manager. He adds that the document outlines the support that the office provides the two services.

The RSJPO’s mission is to provide warfighters with robot systems by pushing new technologies out to troops as soon as the technologies are available. A key mission for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs). “We look for robotics to detect and defeat IEDs in theater,” Gotvald emphasizes.

As the designated agency for acquiring, fielding, training and sustaining robotic systems for the Army and the Marine Corps, the RSJPO coordinates with the other services and participates in joint robotics efforts through the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Gotvald notes that the office meets with the OSD twice a year to propose robotics efforts including collaboration tests and systems fielding.

Army and Marine Corps research laboratories also are tied to the RSJPO and must obtain the office’s endorsement for individual research and development programs before they can request funding. Gotvald explains that the program office must agree to an acquisition plan before funding for new research is released. “There must be a plan in place to put it [the system] in the field and to produce, train, field and sustain it,” he says.

This service-supported research can involve developing an entire system or specific payloads such as a sensor. Besides working with other U.S. Defense Department agencies, the RSJPO also works closely with university and industry research teams. Gotvald shares that office personnel attend robotics industry events sponsored by organizations such as the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International to stay abreast of new technology developments. But the office’s core mission is acquiring, managing and supporting the unmanned platforms used by the services.

Approximately 20 types of robotic systems are now in use in Afghanistan and Iraq. These systems range from manportable tactical robots—such as I-Robot’s Packbot, the Talon explosive ordnance system and the Marine Corps’ Dragon Runner—to six-ton mine clearance systems. However, Gotvald observes that all of these systems are equally important to warfighters. He describes robots as a family of tools, noting that soldiers are issued robotic systems as solutions for specific missions. Troops may need only a small platform to manipulate an IED, or they may need a large, heavy-duty robot to clear a minefield.

One robotic system now being readied for deployment is the Throwbot, a tactical robot that can be tossed into doorways and windows. The small, cylindrical robot is about the size of a soda can, has two wheels and a video camera, and weighs less than half a pound. Developed by ReconRobotics Inc., Minnetonka, Minnesota, the Throwbot is controlled by a commercially available handheld wireless device with a joystick and monitor. It is designed to provide rapid surveillance for soldiers before they enter a building.

Another platform entering service is the Gladiator. Developed by CarnegieMellonUniversity, Pittsburgh, this six-wheeled, golf-cart-size robot will be used by the Marine Corps in a variety of scout and support roles. Gladiator is intended for combat missions and can be outfitted with machine guns and grenade launchers. This is the first armed robot to be fielded to soldiers, according to Gotvald. The RSJPO plans to evaluate several prototypes of the system this year.

 
The RSJPO is currently evaluating the Gladiator unmanned ground system. Developed for the Marine Corps by Carnegie Mellon University, Gladiator is a multipurpose robot intended to support combat operations. The capability also can be equipped with machine guns or grenade launchers.
The RSJPO also is responsible for maintaining and supporting the unmanned ground systems deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to 2004, the office was responsible for a relatively small number of robots, Gotvald shares. These machines were used for bomb and land mine disposal in Bosnia and Kosovo, where they provided warfighters with valuable information and operational experience, he says.

In 2004 the Defense Department requested 162 robotic systems from the RSJPO. Initially classified, this request was to provide robots to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2005, as the machines’ mission had expanded from explosive disposal to reconnaissance, the office had fielded 1,800 robotic systems. Gotvald notes that the number of robots in theater has grown to more than 5,000 machines. U.S. forces now operate more robots than they have armored fighting vehicles in the region, he says.

The RSJPO also recently acquired a new robotic system, the xBot. Manufactured by iRobot Corporation, Burlington, Massachusetts, the xBot is an improved variant of the firm’s PackBot family of machines. Under the terms of the $286 million indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity contract, the Army could order up to 3,000 of the robots to provide troops with a reconnaissance and explosive ordnance removal capability. The first 101 units already have been delivered to meet an urgent operational requirement.

The xBots are part of a “robotic surge” designed to support stepped-up operations in Iraq. Gotvald says that the RSJPO has increased its capabilities to support this effort and future FCS systems as they roll out. He maintains that the office has the personnel and facilities in place to manage any surge requirements for robotic systems.

Other robotic systems on the horizon are the unmanned ground components of the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. As the initial phases of the FCS program are spiraled into the current force (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2007), the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) Block 1 platform will be deployed to Army units. Gotvald says that the office is currently evaluating the SUGV with the goal of deploying more of this particular platform. This combination of in-theater robots and evaluation systems is greatly expanding the number of robots under RSJPO management. “By the end of the year, we could easily have over 6,000 systems,” he says.

Robots in the field are managed and maintained by the office’s Joint Robotics Repair Facility, a 30,000-square-foot center consisting of warehouses, offices and technical workshops. More than 100 Army and Marine Corps Reserve personnel staff the facility. The RSJPO also maintains repair centers in Southwest Asia, including a 15,000-square-foot repair facility in Iraq, and this spring it will open a new site in Afghanistan.

When a deployed robot is damaged or requires maintenance, Army and Marine Corps units can take the machine to an RSJPO facility, where it is either repaired or replaced within four hours. To manage and track rapid repair and servicing, the office has an elaborate contracting framework in place backed by a computerized database and parts tracking system.

Besides explosives and combat damage, another major challenge to robot operations in the region is the crowded electromagnetic environment. Because most robotic systems must be operated remotely via wireless links, their control systems are susceptible to interference from other communications or jamming systems designed to jam IEDs. Gotvald adds that another technical challenge is maintaining non-line-of-sight communications without disrupting command and control links.

Because new technologies can offer solutions to the operational challenges faced by battlefield robots, the RSJPO maintains close relationships with other U.S. government research agencies. For example, it has a memorandum of understanding with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This arrangement allows the office to transition any new DARPA-developed technologies directly to an acquisition, training and sustaining program. However, Gotvald maintains that all Marine Corps and Army research laboratories working with the RSJPO must adhere to the ground robotics master plan. He explains that the master plan is a list of ongoing approved robotics projects and adds that the OSD manages its own detailed robotics road map.

Another responsibility of the RSJPO is assisting the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in developing new doctrines for robotic platforms. Gotvald says that the office’s training efforts focus on system capabilities primarily rather than mission doctrine. RSJPO personnel are posted at TRADOC’s schools to help develop the doctrine, but he says that the office does not create its own doctrine.

Besides maintaining robotic systems for the Army and Marine Corps, the RSJPO also provides repair and maintenance support for the other services’ robots, especially those used for explosive ordnance disposal. Gotvald adds that the U.S. Navy and Air Force operate their own counter IED robots in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Any time a service has a robot that it wants to put in the field, we’re the point of contact to train, field and sustain in theater,” he says.

Web Resources
Robotic Systems Joint Project Office: www.redstone.army.mil/ugvsjpo
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International: www.auvsi.org
ReconRobotics Inc.: www.recon-scout.com
Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute: www.ri.cmu.edu