U.S. expands role of ground robots for dismounted soldiers

Portable UGV's get smaller, networked for dismounted soldiers

Just as drones get smaller, so, too, are unmanned ground vehicles increasingly being used in tight spots for combat operations ranging from bomb disposal and reconnaissance to detecting chemical weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Meanwhile, they are also being linked via networks using off-the-shelf controllers.

A Massachusetts robotics manufacturer has announced another round of orders from the Army and the other government agencies to supply small UGV's that can be carried on the battlefield in backpacks. A recent U.S. military order for 32 systems also included a "multi-robot control system" designed to accelerate training for operating the small robots using a tablet-based interface.

Endeavor Robotics, Chelmsford, Mass., asserts the Army contract awarded last month represents the first large scale deployment of a tablet control system capable of directing multiple systems from its family of ground robots. The control system includes an Android-based rugged tablet controller that incorporates an MPU5 "smart radio" from Persistent Systems. The control system is linked via a mesh networking topology in which each node serves as a data relay.

The company further claims it has fielded more than 1,000 of the systems around the world for military, law enforcement and industrial applications. The control system, dubbed uPoint, has been wrung out by previous users and has since been integrated across the company's line of man-portable UGVs.

Late last month, Endeavor Robotics received another U.S. government order worth more than $15 million to upgrade and support robots already deployed in the field. The company did not identify the government customer.

Endeavor Robotics (formerly iRobot Defense & Security) says it has so far delivered more than 6,000 ground robots to the U.S. military and other government and international customers. In 2015, an Army chemical battalion began modifying the company's PackBot 510, a ground robot weighing less that 20 pounds widely used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army program is designed to modify the man-portable robot for bomb and chemical detection missions in underground facilities.

The robotics modification was part of a broader service effort to get off-the-shelf technologies into the hands of soldiers as quickly as possible.

The latest contracts include upgraded components designed to improve platform communications along with command and controls systems, the company noted.

Along with PackBot, the company manufacturers a "throwable" robot called FirstLook that can survive a 16-foot drop onto concrete. The 5.2-pound robot is designed to provide "immediate situational awareness."

The company also makes a "single-person-lift" ground robot weighing less than 30 pounds that includes a manipulator arm.