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Intuitive Robotics Operator Control (IROC) Challenge 2013 [Update: Cancelled]

At least it's not another rodeo

Finally, an unmanned ground vehicle demonstration that’s not being called a rodeo. Instead, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) is gathering information to support its 2013 Intuitive Robotics Operator Control (IROC) Challenge, planned for Nov. 4-8, 2013, at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center (MUTC) in Butlerville, Ind.

MUTC was also the site of the recent U.S. Army North “Vibrant Response 13-2” CBRN exercise.

Unlike previous ground robotic “rodeo” events that focused on providing industry with opportunities to demonstrate the capabilities of their UGV platforms, MCWL’s 2013 IROC challenge focuses on the control of those platforms. Specifically, the Sept. 23, 2013 request for information (RFI) noted that the MCWL Ground Combat Element branch was interested in gathering information “to further its understanding of currently available technologies that could provide a Marine with the ability to control an unmanned ground vehicle comparable to the way a squad of dismounted Marines interacts in an operational context.”

“MCWL’s efforts in Tactical Control and Tactical Robotics will continue to explore the role of the robot as a functional member of a squad utilizing more intuitive methods of interaction and control of the robot. Instead of adding the burden of a hand controller, this effort aims to facilitate interaction similar to the way Marines interact in a squad, using methods such as gestures, voice commands, and touch to more intuitively supervise the system…”

MCWL’s investigations of unmanned systems date back to the late 1990s and early experimentation with small tactical unmanned aerial vehicles and throwable robots. Some of that early experimentation also included modular wearable controllers and hand emplaced sensor suites.

According to the RFI, over the past several years these experimental efforts have transitioned into the Tactical Network Sensor Suite (TNS2) and the Tactical Robotic Controller (TRC). The TNS2 initiative integrates hand emplaced sensor networks, several UAV platforms and several unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) platforms into the TRC; demonstrating the ability for multiple sensors and unmanned platforms to be controlled by a single controller in an integrated tactical sensor network.

UGV controller

Master Sgt. Nathan Luther, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with Combat Logistics Battalion 22, Combat Logistics Regiment 27, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, operates a MK II Talon Robot during a guard reaction force procedure, Oct. 20, 2010, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The upcoming USMC IROC Challenge is meant to explore new unmanned ground vehicle tactical control techniques and technologies. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Bruno J. Bego

More recently, MCWL has also experimented with voice command of ground robots. In addition, several other MCWL initiatives have focused on adding autonomous appliqué kits to existing platforms as well as weaponizing various squad support vehicles.

The RFI notes that “MCWL’s efforts in Tactical Control and Tactical Robotics will continue to explore the role of the robot as a functional member of a squad utilizing more intuitive methods of interaction and control of the robot. Instead of adding the burden of a hand controller, this effort aims to facilitate interaction similar to the way Marines interact in a squad, using methods such as gestures, voice commands, and touch to more intuitively supervise the system…”

The 2013 IROC Challenge is part of that continuing exploration to investigate that intuitive supervision. Interested IROC “performers” are invited to participate in one of three different challenge areas:

  • Command Recognition Challenge;
  • Mission Execution Challenge; and
  • Companion Challenge.

The Command Recognition Challenge seeks to identify technologies that are or could be integrated with a mobile robotic platform. Using those technologies, vendor operators will demonstrate repeated recognition and response to intuitive commands given at various locations in the vicinity of the control system. Challenger participants will have the option to use vendor-engineered commands, or supplied “tactically-relevant” commands.

For example, the list of tactically relevant voice commands offered by MCWL includes:

  • – Brake, stop, or halt
  • – Drive Forward
  • – Drive Reverse
  • – Drive Left (continuous counterclockwise system rotation)
  • – Drive Right (continuous clockwise system rotation)
  • – Step Left (differs from ‘Drive Left’ where this represents some incremental counterclockwise turn angle)
  • – Step Right (differs from ‘Drive Right’ where this represents some incremental clockwise turn angle)
  • – Slow down
  • – Speed up

In the IROC Mission Execution Challenge, the focus will be on the execution of a mission similar to those that might be tasked in an operational setting with as little human interaction as possible. Event descriptions note that vendor operators will be expected to direct their technology to complete an action at a specified location in line-of- sight from the start position. The path between the start and end location – which will be over an improved surface and less than 200 meters in total distance – “may also include obstacles that need to be circumvented, and interruptions indicated by the test administrator during the course of the mission, in which the vendor operator may be asked to stop their system for a short period of time and then resume the mission when indicated by the test administrator.”

Finally, the Companion Challenge will focus on technologies that will allow a platform to accompany a human operator through tactically-relevant environments that might be expected to cause trouble for human-robot interfaces.

The RFI notes that MCWL is soliciting participation in the IROC Challenge “in order to identify commercial and developmental dismount support technologies that are currently integrated with a mobile robotic platform, or that could be integrated with a limited systems engineering cycle.”

 

[Update]

On Oct. 10, 2013, the Marine Corps cancelled the IROC Challenge 2013 due to “budget restraints.”

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...