The U.S. military has been one of the most enthusiastic and lucrative supporters of the robotics industry for decades and will continue to be so, according to Joseph Dyer, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral and current president of iRobot Corp.’s government and industrial robots division.
But if the robotics industry is going to keep up with the military’s demands, it has to mature a little—improving its designs to reduce overall cost, beefing up its lifecycle support, and expanding both manufacturing and maintenance networks.
Speaking at the RoboBusiness Expo 2009 conference in Boston, today, Dyer said the robotics industry is tremendously successful with companies that are willing to experiment on new forms of automation and new—sometimes unsuccessful—ways of doing things in an effort to find an advantage.
Robots have been less successful with companies that want to buy products with a specific, well-defined function, along with the training, documentation, parts supply and logistics necessary for a global corporation that is focused more on improving its own operations than breaking new ground technologically.
“We do real well with customers who think having to reboot is not a bad thing,” Dyer said. “We haven’t always done so well with the other kind of customers.”
The military, especially since the budget cutbacks and weapons-system reprioritization announced by the Pentagon this month, will continue to be a huge market for robotics companies, if they can move beyond their tendency to produce a niche product and focus all their efforts on it.
Unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) such as iRobot’s PackBot, for example, have been very successful at explosive ordinance disposal (EOD), he said, which is essentially rolling up to something explosive and setting it off.
“EOD is a wonderful place to get traction [for robots in combat],” Dyer said. “But it’s a relatively small, i might say, a boutique market. It’s Big Army, Big Infantry where you go from the hundreds of products sold to the thousands, when every platoon might have its own robot.”
The roles PackBot and other iRobot UGVs have been used for has evolved from EOD to route clearance, reconnaisance, observation, and, in its most direct benefit in a combat situation, taking point position for an infantry squad clearing buildings, caves and other enclosed spaces.
“Our friends in the Army will tell you 52 percent of their casualties come with first contact with the enemy,” Dyer said. “Hence the popularity of the point position. What a great role for a robot.”
Most robots are currently used in such reconnaisance roles, but, as happened with the Predator UAV, military history shows that new technology moves from reconnaisance to strike roles relatively rapidly.
Robots are moving in that direction right now, but are becoming important in logistical roles such as automated supply convoys as well.
The U.S. military—really, warfare in general—will be completely transformed by increasing autonomy and capability of robotic systems over the next couple of decades.
“Ships will arrive on foreign shores and deploy unmanned underwater vehicles to clear mines and for reconnaisance,” Dyer said. “They’ll carry UGVs to shore and launch UAVs for operations and observation, and they will have unprecedented levels of situational awareness. They will greatly reduce responsibility for many of the roles currently filled by special operations forces.”
But the robotics industry, focused as it is on heavily engineered solutions with a comparatively lax follow-through on support, supply and maintenance, is not prepared to take advantage of the opportunity, Dyer said.
The risks are significant; the military is pushing more responsibility for the cost of design onto its contractors, and keeping the pressure on to keep prices down. And the robotics industry itself is as ripe for consolidation as the aircraft industry was in the 30s, when dozens of standalone companies built and sold planes to both military and civilian companies.
“We will see a winnowing down a lot faster in the robotics industry than we did in aviation,” Dyer said.
The cost will be significant as well. It cost iRobot $30 million to build up its infrastructure to the point it could support multiple large-scale military contracts, he said. Other robotics companies wil lhave to make similar investments if they’re to move up the same ladder.
And the robots themselves will have to advance as well, so they’re able to operate on their own for long periods without requiring an operator’s full-time attention, plus the attention of a guard or guards to protect the operator from enemy activity.
“And wouldn’t it be great if, when a robot lost communications, it would go back to the last place it could talk?” Dyer asked? “Right now you have to send someone out to get it; but if it was a place that was attractive to go, you wouldn’t have sent a robot in the first place.”
Solutions to problems like that will come in on “cat’s feet” over a period of years. “You don’t jump from where we are today to the governor of California all at once,” he said, referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role as Terminator, the most feamous, if most fictional, of military robots.
The question isn’t whether the U.S. military will get to that point, he said. The question is whether the robotics industry can move fast enough to keep up with its need to do so.