Dr. Robert Mandelbaum, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said there are four major areas where progress needs to be made for robots to really take their place in and among humans. DARPA has efforts under way in all four:
• mobility – to cross over terrain with the speed and agility to keep up with human warfighters;
• manipulation – to interact with the environment and do real work;
• cognition – which includes perception, the ability for the robot to understand its environment, where obstacles are, where objects are it is trying to manipulate, where other robots and humans are, and the ability to navigate and manipulate in the world around it; and
• power – with an emphasis on light weight, compact size, at least 24-hour full charge for batteries, easily recharged/replaced, quiet, no “footprint” indicating it was there.
As with most leading-edge technologies, DARPA is the U.S. Defense Department’s primary focal point for adding ground robots to the warfighters’ tool set.
“It’s actually a very broad range [of potential capabilities], basically involving the 3 Ds,” Mandelbaum said. “For example, carrying equipment. Ground soldiers and Marines are now burdened with in excess of 100 pounds on their backs in very, very difficult terrain. That impacts both combat capability and long-term health; there are a tremendous number of back injuries among people carrying these backpacks for extended periods of time, resulting in them being removed from duty.
“DARPA is looking at addressing that issue by creating robots that can carry the load for ground troops. But a side effect is the ability to take equipment into the field you otherwise wouldn’t take, such as artillery, giving our squads an unfair advantage against the enemy. That is one of many traditional applications of robotics DARPA is looking to provide by filling technology holes that currently prevent them from being deployed.”
Feedback from the field is a major driver for ground robot development, often in response to an immediate need.
“We get operational assessments and feedback all the time to modify for the threat or look at for the next system design. That’s how we have been driven to lighter robots,” Braden said. “I just fielded a large number of medium robots [the 50-plus pound xBot] in both Iraq and Afghanistan and, having finished that, we’re moving down to one about 35 pounds.
“The robots over there before were 65-plus pounds. We sent the xBot over specifically for the grunts, who very much like the lighter robot, then the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] guys saw it and wanted it because it was lighter to backpack in and out; the engineers, working on route clearance, did the same.”
However, ground robots are still new to the military and far earlier in their development than UAVs.
“When we started going into the caves in Afghanistan and IEDs started showing up on the battlefield, we got serious about ground robots,” Braden said. “Because we are at war, you have a higher level of interest and funding and I think we have made tremendous progress since 2004.
“Unfortunately, this war isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, so we will be pressed for more progress, to continue to press forward at an accelerated pace. Robots are enabling tools and what we’re doing now is making them more agile and intuitive, but using a robot is a very deliberate thing and I don’t really see any danger of us going to a robotic battlefield.”
One of the top requests is for mobile robots that can do more heavy lifting. There are a number of potential ways to achieve that – and an even greater number of obstacles.