Unmanned vehicles have long been used by the military to handle situations characterized by the three Ds: dull, dirty, and dangerous. As the use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in the military and industry becomes more complex, the need for interoperability on and between systems has exponentially increased.

A U.S. Army robot equipped with RE2 Robotics’ Highly Dexterous Manipulation Systems (HDMS) opens the door of an emergency vehicle. (Image courtesy of EOD Technology Division, US Army ARDEC)

The U.S. Army's Interoperability Profiles (IOP) is at the forefront of this effort. IOP standardizes the software and hardware interfaces between major subsystems, such as between a robotic platform and a manipulator arm, or between a robotic platform and a controller. IOP dramatically reduces the integration effort required when introducing new capabilities, such as pay-loads and sensors, to robot systems. IOP also helps developers concentrate on their specific areas of expertise. Finally, it allows companies to leverage their combined strengths to create best-of-breed solutions that quickly and effortlessly adapt to changing missions.

The need for interoperability among systems is essential for numerous reasons. During an active engagement, for instance, a system's ability to be rapidly configured through hot-swappable payloads can reduce the time it takes to perform missions. IOP also affords portability, since systems can easily be disassembled into several pieces that can be carried by multiple people. Cost savings are realized by creating competition for these modular components. Finally, a path for rapid insertion of new capability onto IOP-based systems is created.

“The transition from ‘stove-piped’ proprietary solutions toward open architecture and interoperability fosters innovation, which often emerges from small business,” says Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2 Robotics in Pittsburgh, Pa.

A U.S. Army robot opens a suspicious backpack for remote inspection of its contents. (Image courtesy of EOD Technology Division, US Army ARDEC)

“This movement toward open architecture and interoperability standards like IOP allows for the integration of the best technology, not just that of one vendor,” adds Pedersen. “This allows for a system to be configured and adjust to different missions more quickly and easily.”

A proponent of IOP, RE2 Robotics develops state-of-the-art technologies that help keep users out of harm's way. RE2 designs robust modular manipulators and humanlike dual-arm robotic systems with imitative controls that can easily be integrated onto a variety of platforms and enable personnel to perform dangerous and complex tasks at a safe distance.

“The direct benefit of IOP is that it enables developers to concentrate on their specific areas of expertise,” says Pedersen. “The state-of-the-art manipulation technology that RE2 develops can easily be integrated on other robotic platforms, quickly getting the best capabilities to the warfighter.”

Proven Field Testing

The advantage of IOP was put on display at a recent Universal Tactical Controller (UTC) event at the Fort Benning Army base, in conjunction with the National Advanced Mobility Consortium (NAMC), a nationwide alliance of small businesses, large defense contractors, academic institutions and research organizations. At the event, representatives from numerous robotics companies were on hand to demonstrate IOP capabilities, including Dynetics, Endeavor Robotics, Neya Systems, QinetiQ North America, RE2 Robotics, and SPAWAR, the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Remotely controlled robot equipped for hazardous duty with onboard communications, vision system, and single manipulator arm. (Image courtesy of the National Advanced Mobility Consortium (NAMC) Members)

During 10 hours of demonstrations over several days of testing, RE2 integrated its DS4-N robotic arm onto the Tank and Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) Ground Vehicle Robot (GVRbot), a modified version of the standardized Packbot. The arm integrated seamlessly after configuring it to match the project's interoperability profile. The robotic system was then ready for the operator to conduct a series of tasks, including locating a simulated IED by manipulating the environment around the robot.

All devices were controlled from one common tactical controller running Multi-robot Operator Control Unit (MOCU) software, allowing the tester to switch from control of a UAV to the GVRbot with the simple press of a button. Developed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, San Diego (SSC San Diego), MOCU software allows for active control of an unmanned system, in which the operator manipulates the unmanned system directly, as well as passive control, in which the operator is receiving a video feed from the system but not controlling its movements.

“Recent demonstrations at Fort Benning between our office and the NAMC have demonstrated that the IOP can be implemented on a controller to enable the control of several different ground robots, and that the IOP is compatible with the interface standards of other domains on the same device, meaning that IOP can coexist with the Unmanned Systems Control Segment, Tactical Open Government-owned Architecture [for controlling unmanned air systems], and several different operating systems,” says Mark Mazzara, Robotics Interoperability Lead, Project Manager Force Projection for the U.S. Army.