Many recent blockbuster films and best-selling books depict the robotic apocalypse and have shed a negative light on military robotics. However, not all unmanned system development is aimed toward building autonomous machines that spy on foreign nations or neutralize enemy threats. The United States Department of Defense (DoD) continues to aggressively invest in developing unmanned systems and technologies because robots can perform the tasks that are too dull, dirty, or dangerous to warrant warfighter intervention.

The nine Joint Capability Areas of unmanned system development, defined by the DoD in its Unmanned System Integrated Roadmap.

By 2013, it is estimated that the DoD will spend $8 billion in this area. The majority of research and contracting will go towards developing robots that are ideally suited for autonomous tasks, and which will include more than just robots that pull triggers. It is expected that there will be a proliferation of robots that detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices (IEDs), clear passageways of vegetation, dig trenches, and perform other needed tasks. Over the next few years, it will be important for engineers working on these projects to demonstrate and develop new concepts quickly and efficiently so that new technology does not outpace unmanned system development. To maintain this level of continuous innovation, developers will need to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies and rapid prototyping development platforms.

Military Robots of the Future

In April 2009, the DoD updated its Unmanned System Integrated Roadmap, an official document that projects the evolution and transition of unmanned system technology over the next 25 years. This technology roadmap incorporates a vision and strategy for developing unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned maritime systems (UMSs). It also identifies nine Joint Capability Areas (JCAs) to provide a sense of how these systems currently, or could in the future, contribute to defense missions.

This NI Compact RIO-based Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot from Vecna Robotics exhibits multiple capability areas, performing search and rescue missions in addition to logistics and heavy lifting.

In the first two JCAs listed in the table below, the DoD projects the adoption of unmanned systems in Battlespace Awareness and Force Application tasks. The robotic examples depicted in these applications are also the typical military robots featured in the mainstream media. At times, these technologies have inspired polarizing debates. For example, should we use UAS drones and weaponized UGVs to suppress and neutralize enemy threats? It is important to note that while the DoD expects to continue creating various levels of autonomy for these unmanned systems for Battlespace Awareness and Force Application tasks, they will likely not become fully automated until “legal, rules of engagement, and safety concerns have all been thoroughly examined and resolved.” (U.S. DoD: FY2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap)

On the other hand, the DoD defines two JCAs as being “ideally suited for autonomous tasks.” The first capability area is Protection. Robots will be able to manage decontamination, search and inspection, mine clearance and neutralization, casualty extraction and evacuation, and sophisticated explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). By using unmanned systems to perform these tasks, the military will drastically reduce the risk of endangering soldiers.

The DoD approximates that UGVs have conducted more than 30,000 missions. During these operations, robots have detected and/or neutralized more than 15,000 IEDs and potentially saved thousands of lives. Greater levels of autonomy will evolve with respect to navigation and manipulation with advanced EOD robots to further protect the warfighter.

Smaller, more dexterous search and rescue robots can exhibit unique kinematics, often inspired by animals or insects in nature.

Also aiding to the capability area of Protection, robots will enhance search and rescue missions. The size, mobility, and payload capability will vary across domains, but the purpose of the robots will remain consistent. The Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) from Vecna Robotics, for instance, can locate victims in battlefield environments and carry them to rescue. Additionally, small, dexterous robots will be able to navigate through rubble and urban environments to deliver aid and supplies where larger robots cannot reach. Examples of smaller search and rescue UGVs are often biomimetic, taking on the shape and the dynamic movements of animals like snakes and insects.

Logistics is the other ideal capability for autonomous tasks, according to the DoD. These duties are typically dull and/or dirty. Many logistical tasks, like munitions and material handling, currently require human intervention; however, these responsibilities could one day be performed by completely autonomous systems. Maintenance functions such as inspection, decontamination, and refueling will be alleviated by unmanned systems, thus freeing manned resources.

Perhaps the logistical task that autonomous systems will become most pervasive in during the coming years is transportation of supplies, especially in the ground domain. Current examples include multi-function utility/logistics and equipment (MULE) robots that carry payloads across various terrains. Additionally, today’s remote-controlled Humvees may serve as scout vehicles in convoys. The DoD predicts fully autonomous convoys to exist by 2034.

Challenges to Unmanned System Development

Technological advancements, both within the DoD and in the commercial domain, have provided an exciting landscape for unmanned system developers. Disruptive technologies such as multicore processing and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) provide robot builders with access to computer processing that is smaller, faster, and cheaper. They can also choose from the expanding variety of COTS sensors — from inexpensive infrared microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors to highly complex laser rangefinders, or LIDARs, that produce intricate 3D models of a surrounding environment.

However, the expected evolution of performance envelopes, common to all domains, will provide developers with formidable challenges. Regardless of whether the system performs in the air, on the ground, or in a maritime environment, current technology challenges common to all domains are power consumption and maintenance. Mission endurance for an unmanned system today is measured in hours. By 2015, robots will need to be powered for weeks. If that is not a big enough challenge, mission endurance is expected to last months or even years by 2034. Currently, sophisticated batteries are the solution; however, future unmanned systems may incorporate their own onboard power systems using solar resources or even biomass reactors.

Beyond power, engineers are also focused on interoperability and standardization. Robots are currently built by a variety of institutions, thus making the majority of architectures proprietary. This means that operation and maintenance in the field requires military soldiers to be familiar with a variety of platforms; however, by 2015, the DoD expects all military unmanned systems to have a common architecture. This standardization will allow for interoperability among system controls, communications, and payloads/mission equipment packages.

Software development tools like LabVIEW Robotics offer robotics-specific IP, hundreds of built-in sensor-drivers, and a JAUS Interoperability Toolkit created by TORC Technologies to help simplify sophisticated military robotics development.

The Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems (JAUS) standard is a protocol framework that dictates a hierarchical system made up of subsystems, nodes, and components. It contains a strictly defined message set to support interoperability, and intended to enhance modularity and enable interoperability between unmanned system elements, even if they are created by different organizations. Unmanned systems built on the JAUS standard will be critical to the DoD’s standardization efforts. Keys to Success The Unmanned System Integrated Roadmap calls for impressive transformations of unmanned systems by 2034. Time is of the essence. The sooner the DoD can deploy powerful, sophisticated unmanned systems to perform dull, dirty, or dangerous tasks on the battlefield, the sooner it can reduce the burden on soldiers. Thus, it is up to engineers and scientists to quickly demonstrate and evaluate new concepts.

Large organizations, top-tier prime contractors, and small technology companies will all vie for DoD contracts, and prototyping will be a crucial part to acquire this new business. The institutions that can quickly and effectively deliver concepts will see their solutions deployed to the field.

For businesses looking for a strategic advantage, this means using flexible, productive design tools when possible. Robotics design tools, like NI LabVIEW Robotics, can provide engineers with a running start and allow them to focus on robotics-specific challenges. The LabVIEW Robotics graphical system design platform includes support for multicore, real-time embedded, and FPGA targets; seamless integration with hundreds of sensor, actuator, and instrument drivers; and support for hybrid programming solutions, such as integrating LabVIEW graphical software with the Open C Interface or importing m-scripts to run on real-time OSs. Roboticists will need to take advantage of these development tools to capture the quickest paths to a working prototype.

Additionally, as technologies and performance envelopes rapidly change, obsolescence management will become more critical than ever for the DoD. Thus, solutions will need to employ flexible, modular architectures so they can adapt to and exploit new technologies as they become available. Reconfigurable hardware platforms such as NI Single-Board RIO and CompactRIO combine a real-time processor, an FPGA, and a range of modular I/O, including analog, digital, motion, and communication I/O. Using this standard architecture and LabVIEW Robotics graphical development tools, roboticists can rapidly design and prototype embedded systems that are easily reconfigurable, expandable, and adaptable.

With its integrated roadmap, the DoD has taken the initial steps to fully realize the impact unmanned system development will have on modern-day national defense, both on and off the battlefield. Robots will not only save lives, they will alleviate troops of cumbersome yet necessary tasks. Engineers and scientists are challenged to evolve levels of sophistication and autonomy in unmanned systems. Experimentation will be key. Those who use COTS technology and rapid prototyping platforms will be the first to make an impact on unmanned system development.

This article was written by Emilie Kopp, Robotics Business Developer for National Instruments, Austin, TX. For more information, Click Here 


Defense Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2010 issue of Defense Tech Briefs Magazine.

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