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Uncle Sam Wants You To Develop (Autonomous) UGVs
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Nov 05, 2007

Autonomus UGV’s Figure 1

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“If you are considering military robotics as a career or a direction for your company, the news is all good…roadmaps are in place for the development and deployment of UGV systems and funding is available.”

The US military, like the militaries of most developed countries, understands the value of applying robotics technology to military requirements and are willing to spend time and money to deliver operational systems.  Unmanned aerial vehicles, which are now proving their worth over the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq, were under development for more than 40 years and cost plenty in R&D dollars.  Unmanned ground vehicles, too, are receiving much interest from the military (read funding), and this interest translates into career opportunities.

At this time, there are approximately 4,000 ground robots employed by the US military (13 systems), up from less than 100 in 2001.  These robotics systems are in action in multiple theaters including the European Command (EUCOM), Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Command (CENTCOM).  Improvised explosive device (IED) detection, reconnaissance and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) are typical applications.

The Army’s key defense acquisition program to develop and field light, medium and heavy unmanned ground vehicles is the Future Combat Systems (FCS) initiative, a $161B modernization program (the Pentagon’s second-most-costly program, behind the $276B Joint Strike Fighter).  UGV development efforts have also been supported by the Army’s Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise (JGRE) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle (UGCV) Perception for Off-Road Robots Integration (UPI) program.  The UGVs include fielded systems and prototypes, as well as commercial off the shelf (COTS) purchases.  Classes of unmanned ground vehicles under these programs include:

• Armed Reconnaissance Vehicles (ARV) – These systems provide reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), as well as force protection services (the armed version).
• Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle - Large, weaponized UGVs designed for ground combat.
• Soldier Unmanned Ground Vehicles (SUGV) – These are small, man-packable robot systems that can be configured for a large number of missions including reconnaissance and explosive detection and disposal.
• Multifunction Utility/Logistics Equipment Vehicles (MULE) – These systems support the soldier in the field, providing transportation services for equipment and supplies.

More Than the War
The war in Iraq drives much of the military’s current robotic activity.  However, ever since 1990, Department of Defense (DoD) ground robotics investments have steadily increased over the years and will continue to do so.  For example, since 1990, the level of annual JGRE appropriations has increased from approximately $20M to almost $50M in FY2006.  Moreover, it is projected that DoD research investments during FY2006-2012 will approach $1.7B.  More importantly for those evaluating the military robotics as a career, this research will transition to acquisition programs.

More Than Casualty Reduction
There are many reasons for the military’s interest in unmanned ground vehicle systems.  This is a good thing for those considering a career in military robotics as it reduces risks.  And risks there are with any career choice.  Although there have been efforts at scaling back the Army’s Future Combat Systems initiative, the benefits of the military application of robots and robotic technology are so compelling that projects will continue even if substantial program funding cuts are made.

Casualty reduction is one of the primary reasons for the military’s battlefield robotics initiatives.  Robots can be used in place of humans for many of the dangerous and life threatening tasks that soldiers perform on a daily basis.  Also, robots are able to accomplish some tasks better than their human counterparts, or undertake tasks that humans simply cannot perform.  That is, robotic systems can increase battlefield operational effectiveness, in addition to saving lives.  In fact, Army officials have requested that research in UGV functionality should focus on what robots can do better that humans, as opposed to what humans already do well.  For their part, the Army has developed an ordered list of areas where they need support.  Robotics technology can be applied to meet many of these requirements (see Figure 1).

Robotics in the form of unmanned ground vehicles can also be used to completely change the way in which military force is applied.  The Army’s current transformation from a slow moving, heavily armored (and heavily armed) force to a highly flexible, responsive and agile entity, provides an additional driver for the increased use of robotics within the military.  As it is now envisioned, the Army’s ‘Future Force’ will rely heavily upon unmanned ground systems to extend perception (reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition) and affect action (counter-mine operations, transport, as well as weapons platforms, extraction of the wounded etc.) on the battlefield.

Reducing Costs
At this time, cost savings does not appear to be a driving force in military robotics acquisition programs.  First, the individual robots themselves are expensive.  Second, for the near term, the employment of robots will not result in a reduction of military personal.  In fact, they could increase the number of Army personal as the robots themselves require operators and maintenance teams.  There is also concern in some quarters that the systems themselves will not be able to fulfill mission goals do to limited functionality and a lack of robustness.

As robotic systems increase their perception and reasoning capabilities, and therefore become more autonomous, operator demand will decrease.  Similarly, as the systems themselves become more functional and robust (and standardized), the maintenance load will drop and the systems can be applied in an increasing number of areas.  It can be seen, therefore, that advances in autonomy, functionality and robustness will act to increase mission capabilities and reduce costs.

Where the Jobs Are
When evaluating career opportunities, a sound approach is to look where there is the greatest need (What are the critical requirements?).  Military robotics is similar to all other careers in this respect.

Requirements prioritization is a thorny and uncertain undertaking, and the criticality of unmanned systems make that effort that much more difficult.  However, it can be seen that much of the UGV program’s success is predicated on the ability of the systems to be able to work autonomously (after all we are talking about ‘unmanned’ ground vehicles).  As we have seen, increases in the level of autonomy will increase the operational effectiveness of the systems, and will eventually reduce overall costs. 

Currently, the Army’s unmanned systems are teleoperated, but the goal is to have some systems become fully autonomous over time.  This will occur in a stepwise fashion beginning with adding semiautonomous mobility capabilities to current systems.  Degrees of autonomy can be described as follows (See Figure 2):
• Teleoperation - Dedicated, continuous remote operation without exception handling.  Human operator makes all decisions.
• Teleoperation w/Exception Handling - Continuous remote operation with exception notification when problems occur (‘wheels spinning, unable to proceed’).
• ‘Directed’ Autonomy - Systems directed to ‘go there’ and ‘go there next’ with minimal, non-continuous, direct control.  Operator guidance provided when problems arise.
• Autonomy w/Oversight - Systems ‘go there’ with no direct, continuous control by human operators making path following decisions by themselves.
• Autonomous Operation - Complete autonomy, problem resolution and correction capability (‘go there, perform this task and return’).

High end robotics technologies such as military robots systems are characterized as having significant technical and production risks.  These technical challenges must be addressed before unmanned ground systems can be become a fixture in the Army’s Future Force.  Power management, human-machine interfaces, and integration with other UGV and manned systems just are a few of the UGV functional areas in need of solutions.  Technical hurdles in these areas, and many more, particularly those related to achieving autonomy, must be addressed to realize the Army’s vision for Future Force UGVs.

No Shortage of Work
The United States is the world leader in the area of military robotics, but many other industrialized countries are also embracing robots and robotic technology as a means to increase the efficacy of their militaries and to reduce casualties.  Robust, practical military robots are now deployed in the field and new technologies and systems under development (and test).  Cost reduction is not a driver at this time, but could be realized as systems become more autonomous, functional and durable.

If you are considering military robotics as a career or a direction for your company, the news is all good…roadmaps are in place for the development and deployment of UGV systems and funding is available.  Moreover, the technical challenges for developing unmanned ground systems are daunting, and therefore, there will be no shortage of work, especially in the area of autonomous mobility.  For those of you uneasy with the notion of working for the military, take heart.  The same work can be applied to first responder systems and autonomous transportation initiatives in the commercial space.


Dan Kara is President of Robotics Trends, a division of EH Publishing.  He can be reached at dk[at]roboticstrends[dot]com.

This column, with edits, was originally printed in the July 2007 issue of Servo Magazine

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