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Tiny Machine Packs Big Punch

March 2008
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
The Versatile Intelligent Portable elbit Robot (VIPeR) is a small, lightweight tactical capability intended to support dismounted infantry. Developed by Elbit Systems Limited, the robot can be configured for a variety of missions, such as bomb disposal or reconnaissance. It also can be armed with a submachine gun or a grenade launcher for combat operations.
Scout bot carries sensors, weapons into harm’s way.

A lightweight battlefield robot may soon provide Israeli army units with extra eyes, ears and firepower. Intended to support forces at the company and platoon levels, the robot can be carried into action by one soldier and configured in the field for a variety of missions.

Military robots have evolved rapidly from novelties to vital tools for warfighters. Although this trend is most evident in the exponential growth of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), their ground-based cousins also are being acquired in large numbers for different missions. Similar to UAVs, terrestrial robots are replacing humans in tedious and dangerous battlefield roles such as reconnaissance and ordnance disposal. Unmanned ground vehicles also are undergoing a shift to more aggressive missions, including supporting infantry units in combat.

One multipurpose platform being evaluated by the Israeli military is the Versatile Intelligent Portable elbit Robot (VIPeR), developed by Elbit Systems Limited, Haifa, Israel. VIPeR was developed to provide dismounted infantry units with the ability to conduct missions safely by scouting for booby traps and ambushes, explains Tal Yeshaya, general manager of Elbit’s Land System Division.

Yeshaya explains that the robot is more than just a platform—it is an integrated system consisting of the machine, its handheld controller and a communications system. He adds that the system is unique because it is designed to be network-centric. VIPeR’s data feeds and controller plug into the tactical networks of the Digital Army Program (DAP) (SIGNAL Magazine, May 2005), which is the Israeli military’s ongoing transformation effort.

This networked communications capability allows the robot’s operator to transmit video data from the VIPeR’s cameras to other troops or to higher echelons. The DAP capability also provides the operator with situational awareness through maps projected via a helmet-mounted display. “It is integrated into the C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] system with which the individual is equipped,” says Yeshaya.

Designed for portability and a small profile, the basic robot weighs roughly 25 to 30 pounds and measures 18 inches long, 18 inches wide and 9 inches high. It can carry an 11-pound payload. The robot’s basic configuration consists of two video cameras, one front-facing and one rearward-facing; a microphone; and a speaker. Yeshaya notes that soldiers can select a variety of plug-and-play payloads such as a pan-and-tilt camera mount, forward-looking infrared sensors, a day/night zoom-capable observation camera, an explosives detector, a 4-foot robotic arm and a disrupter device for opening suspicious packages. Weapons options include a 9-millimeter mini-Uzi submachine gun with a scope and laser pointer or a grenade launcher. However, he stresses that although the robot is in final development and evaluation, a full weapons capability has not been finalized.

Yeshaya notes that Elbit is familiar with the development of ground vehicles such as tanks and armored personnel carriers. Although VIPeR is small and lightweight, he says the prototypes suffered from many of the same phenomena that affected larger vehicles. For example, sandy terrain remains a challenge for all sizes of tracked vehicle because it can cause them to lose tread.

 
VIPeR is designed to move over a range of terrain types. A specialized wheel provides mobility over smooth surfaces and changes shape to form treads for rough terrain or to climb stairs.
VIPeR’s ability to switch between modes limits the possibility of it becoming disabled. For locomotion, the robot uses a special wheel that can convert to a track. Yeshaya points out that this capability allows the robot to be tactically flexible by enabling it to switch between a wheeled mode for speed on smooth surfaces, tracks when it encounters rough terrain and a special stair-climbing configuration to enter buildings.

The robot also features sophisticated communications applications to maintain the datalink with the controller. This capability allows VIPeR to be a node in the army’s network-centric combat architecture. Yeshaya adds that the robot’s communications capability can be modified to suit user needs beyond the requirements of the Israeli army; it can be customized for foreign customers.

VIPeR has innate C4ISR functions that can be used without connecting to any networks. For example, the operator can see the robot’s location on a map projected on the command console’s monitor or on the soldier’s eyepiece. The ability to track the machine on a digital map provides soldiers with an additional situational awareness advantage, especially when troops are operating in unfamiliar areas, he says.

The system has a limited autonomous operation capability. It features in-building mapping that allows it to return to a specific retrieval point if it loses contact with the control unit. Yeshaya notes that the robot’s communications system can operate out of line-of-sight from an operator, which greatly enhances its tactical flexibility.

Elbit Systems also is a major supplier of digital communications and situational awareness systems for the Israeli army’s DAP effort. Because the firm uses many of the same components in VIPeR and its communications systems, the robot’s controller can interoperate with other equipment to form a node in a tactical network. “Everything we develop is part of the overall picture,” he says.

The Israeli army is currently evaluating VIPeR under operational conditions. Yeshaya contends that the system is mature and soon will be ready for deployment. Elbit is seeking out international customers for the robot. Although Yeshaya could not provide any details, he shares that some of these customers are interested in the robot’s potential homeland security and law enforcement applications.

Web Resource
Elbit Systems: www.elbitsystems.com