Army, Marine Corps rationalize robotics systems

Army and Marine Corps officials want to increase the number of robots in the battlefield but reduce the types of robots they buy to make robotic systems more interoperable.

U.S. ground troops have approximately 3,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan at their disposal. However, the ability to fully harness the robots' potential suffers from a lack of interoperability among the systems that support them. As a result, soldiers and Marines can’t share data across systems and need different, proprietary controllers to operate each one.

To deal with those limitations, the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO) is developing an open architecture for its systems to facilitate interoperability.

The project's path is similar to one being taken by Army Project Manager Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which is developing a common ground control station for its Raven, Shadow, Hunter and Sky Warrior unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Having an open architecture means that when I buy a robotic system, I don’t necessarily have to buy the operator control unit from the same vendor,” said Jeffrey Jaczkowski, deputy project manager at RSJPO, which is responsible for developing and fielding robots for the Army and Marine Corps.

That vision includes defining “what the command and control architecture looks like — and reference that open architecture standard in our procurement actions,” said Jaczkowski, so that “we will be able to ensure that we can control or talk to any robot in our fleet.”

“I can also pull data across all these robotic systems and push it to who needs it most, enhancing situational awareness down to the squad level,” he said.

Interoperability among robotic systems will become more important as the Army and Marine Corps insert greater numbers of unmanned systems into their theaters of operation. However, at the same time, the Army also expects to significantly reduce the types of robots it buys.

In a concept the Army calls “pure fleeting,” officials plan to transition from as many as a dozen different robot configurations and standardize on just three: the Talon, Packbot and MARCbot explosive ordnance disposal robots, and variations of those robots.

“Pure fleeting will give us many benefits in terms of having manageable configurations from which to do technology insertions and mission-equipment package upgrades,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Thompson, RSJPO project manager. “Managing the configurations also reduces overall life cycle support needs because I only have to support a few configurations instead of a dozen.”

Standardization of platforms doesn’t mean that RSJPO isn’t interested in emerging robotic concepts, particularly those related to mobility that go beyond wheels or tracks, such as robots that slither like snakes or walk like bipeds. The BigDog robot from Boston Dynamics is one such concept that interests RSJPO members.

The size of a large canine, BigDog is a rough-terrain robot that can climb and carry heavy loads using four articulated legs that move like a dog’s. Funding for development of the quadruped robot comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Tactical Technology Office.

Another avenue for future expansion of robots on the battlefield is related more to automation than it is to robotics. That entails modifying some of the Army’s existing fleet of vehicles to operate autonomously. A self-driving convoy would be one application for the capability.

For such systems to succeed, they must operate as well in a tactical environment as they do in a research lab.

In terms of preparing that technology for real-world use, it must work a thousand times in an unpredictable environment and be able to be sustained and repaired, Jaczkowski said, “But we’re not shooting for the 100 percent solution when we field. Eighty percent capability is better than nothing. Wait for the 100 percent, and you’re never going to get there.”