Foster-Miller, a QinetiQ North America company, produces the TALON robots for the U.S. military and first responders. The company is soon scheduled to ship its 2,000th TALON robot into Iraq or Afghanistan. Founded in 1956 by three graduates of MIT and located in the Boston area, Talon offers robotic systems and engineering designs among its product lines. Among its distinctions, the company has attained the SW-CMM Level 3 software certification from the Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon University.
Bob Quinn has been leading the TALON division for the past four years. Prior to joining Foster-Miller, he was president and CEO of Starmet Corp., producers of advanced metallurgical products for defense, aerospace and medical devices. He earned an MBA from Babson College and a BA from Tufts University. He is a widely-quoted subject matter expert on unmanned ground vehicles used by the military. He recently took some time to be interviewed by John P. Desmond, Robotics Trends contributing editor ().
Robotics Trends (RT): Can you describe the current robot product line at Foster-Miller?
Bob Quinn (BQ): We have four families of unmanned ground vehicle robots: TALON, Dragon Runner, MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System), and the largest size is TAGS, which weigh about 6,000 pounds. So we go from the 15-lb Dragon Runner, a throwable robot, to the medium size robot family of TALON, to the larger class called MAARS, weighing about 350 lbs. More recently we introduced the TAGS large vehicle class, which is a diesel-powered off-road vehicle, funded by the U.S. Army’s Tank Automation R&D command in Detroit.
So our unmanned ground vehicle business will have small, medium, large and jumbo sizes. We serve the military predominantly, followed by domestic and international police forces that are looking for bomb squad robots, SWAT team support and some hazardous material applications.
RT: How did the TALON line come about?
BQ: Here is a little history: Foster-Miller (FM) has been working with unmanned ground systems since the 1970s. We began working on coal mining equipment and other very large, robots that by today’s standards would be considered difficult to control and move. In the late 1990s, FM got a DARPA contract to produce a man-portable robot that became TALON. The idea was to produce a much smaller robot that could be used frequently and easily on the battlefield, and able to be carried by a man rather than requiring a trailer or a truck.
So from the 1970s to 2000, robots went from being big and lumbering to being small and fast. We continue to see the trend towards smaller robots, so even though the 125 TALON robot is medium size, there is a family of small robots weighing 15 to 50 pounds that represent the small robot class.
Robots in the military have been used for explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) because of the situation in Iraq with roadside bombs. Over the last four to five years, EOD robots have come plentiful and higher growth is anticipated as the infantry is expected to make increased use of smaller robots for military applications.
Robots have proved their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan by saving many lives. The future seems to be one of not having just one robot size but a family of small, medium, large and jumbo robots. Customers would like to see common controls, such as one controller that can operate any one of these robots. The size class will be determined by the mission. Customers would also like to be able to operate multiple robots from one control station. Today we offer direct tele-operations, one control station operating one robot. But the robotics world is quickly going to a multi-robot world operationally.
RT: Do you have any estimate of lives saved?
BQ: There is no way of knowing, but we do get the casualty rates on the robots. There are four robot ‘hospitals’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. We constantly ship replacement parts. In a six-month period in 2006 through early 2007, 160 robots were blown up and 85% of those were TALONs. All but two were reassembled with new components in these hospitals in Iraq and returned to the fight.
RT: How many robots in all have you shipped to the war theater?
BQ: Next month (April 2008), we will have shipped 1,900 robots. Four years ago, they were not in production and there were no user requirements. Iraq created a user requirement overnight. We now have production capability of 100 robots per month, all going into Iraq, and feeding the forward robot repair facilities.
As a result of the surge, the number of IED (Improvised Explosive Device) incidents, or roadside bombs, has been increasing. At the present time, the robots are being used to locate the roadside bombs and neutralize them before they go off. Unfortunately, sometimes they go off prior to being sighted.
RT: Where are the TALONs manufactured?
BQ: We have a supply chain in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that is generally a one-hour drive from our Waltham facility. We have a great deal of engineering support from employees, who on the way home or in the morning, find it convenient to drop off a part or provide some engineering, quality checks or inspections. The actual assembly is done by subcontractors in the Massachusetts area.
We employ about 100 people in FM in the unmanned vehicle business group, and our subcontractors have about 400 people, so that’s about 500 in the Massachusetts-New Hampshire area working on the TALON robot, which is the only robot in high-volume production.
In 2007, we acquired Automatika out of Pittsburgh, makers of the Dragon Runner, a 15-pound throwable robot developed for the US Marine Corps and never taken into production. Our job is to take it into production.
The user community for that robot is not soldiers looking to find and neutralize IEDs, but the infantry forces who would like to use a robot for reconnaissance purposes, such as entering a building before solders, or providing perimeter security or checkpoint security. Essentially, the small robot can be used as the eyes, ears and mouth of a soldier, without exposing the soldier to a bomb blast.
Robots for the military have been embraced. The soldiers love them. After five years of combat, robots are quickly becoming pervasive for IED localization and neutralization work. And now our customers are talking about using tens of thousands of robots in the battlefield to work with infantry forces. So the use of robots by the military is now expanding exponentially.
RT: Does any other country have the ability to compete?
BQ: No other country is close to putting the number of unmanned ground vehicles out there that the US can.
RT: Can you tell me about your CMM Level 3 software engineering distinction? Are you able to find enough software engineers in the Boston area?
BQ: One of the reasons the robotics industry is so big in Massachusetts, is the universities. There are 10 to 12 universities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire with very good robotics programs. And we also recruit from Carnegie Mellon, Caltech, Stanford and Georgia Tech. But the Massachusetts area has the largest number of robotics programs going on. It’s been a key strength; it offsets the high labor costs. You need mechanical, electrical, software and systems engineers to build robots. With the business growing as rapidly as it is, it is nice to be able to work with multiple universities with a passion for robots. It’s why we are located here.
RT: Do you have any advice for young people who might be considering a career in robotics?
BQ: The robotics field is fun. There is a little bit of a kid in all of us. So inside your business, when you are working with roots, it is a fun thing to do. From a customer standpoint, you are also saving lives. There is nothing more rewarding when we hear from people, particularly face to face, that the robot save their life and that of their buddy life. And they have a story about how the IED went off and killed the robot but not them. So the robotics field can be very rewarding.
RT: What are the top technical challenges areas for you now?
BQ: Robots are an evolutionary product. You are constantly adding capabilities to existing systems. For example on the TALON robot, we are onto the fifth level of improvements in the past six or seven years. We keep adding capability. So keeping up with the progress of technology is a challenge.
When robots first began being used by the military, soldiers wanted only teleoperated robots (one to one) so they would not be replaced. After five years of experience, the soldiers are ready to accept that the robot should have more autonomy, and should do more on its own. For example, soldiers can point on a screen where they want the robot to go, rather than drive it every inch of the way for 1,000 yards.
So now the soldiers want the robots, and they want them faster. It was like a light turned on.
RT: Is the ability to operate multiple robots from a single controller a development area?
BQ: In 2007 we also acquired Pittsburgh-based Applied Perception, a Carnegie Mellon associated firm with a team of software engineers focusing on the autonomy area. They are working on increasing autonomy across the entire family Foster Miller’s small, medium and large robots.
RT: Should we expect FM ever to enter other robotics markets, such as service robotics or in the consumer area?
BQ: We are a defense and security business, with a robotics group within it. We are afraid of what we don’t know. We love what we do and we have diversified so that robots are not the only thing we do.
RT: Do you see growth opportunity in fire safety, police and homeland security markets?
BQ: Bomb squads have used robots since the 1980s, but they were slow, cumbersome and not often used. They stayed in the truck while the bomb squad guys would put on a suit and try to disarm the bomb. But cell phone detonation has changed a lot of things. Prior to the Iraq war, bombs were triggered by timing devices. Now they can be detonated by a cell phone. So the bad guy can blow up the device right when someone walks up to it. So you cannot use a bomb suit in the cell phone detonation age.
So far, what’s been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan has not proliferated around the civilized world and into the streets of America. Nevertheless, bomb squads are interested and have been modifying their equipment to allow for faster, easier to use robots. So we are seeing a little increase.
And we are seeing an increase in SWAT applications, where for example hostage negotiation can be enhanced by the use of a robot. If the robot can be used to see, hear and speak in place of a police officer, who may be in discussions with a bad guy holding hostages behind a barricade. So the use of robots for crisis intervention by the police is starting to pick up.
A third area is using the same robots carrying hazardous sensors, to determine, for example in a tanker truck accident, if hazardous material is leaking. It’s quick and safe to send in a properly-equipped robot.
None of these would be possible it were not for the extensive use of robots by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
John P. Desmond, Robotics Trends contributing editor, can be reached at .