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Small Robotic Mule, Other Unmanned Ground Systems on the Horizon for US Army

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

FORT MEADE, Md. — The Army plans to award a contract this month to produce hundreds of robotic mules that will help light infantry units carry gear, a product manager said last week, as part of a line of unmanned ground systems the service is developing.

The Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport, or S-MET, was tested last year by two infantry brigades from the 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

The six-month assessment included 80 systems from four vendors that were evaluated during home-station training and rotations to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Soldiers successfully tested the performance of the robotic vehicles to ensure they could at least carry 1,000 pounds, operate over 60 miles in a three-day period, and generate a kilowatt when moving and 3 kilowatts when stationary to allow equipment and batteries to charge.

“We were able to demonstrate that and got lots of Soldier feedback,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Bodenhamer, product manager of Appliqué and Large Unmanned Ground Systems, which falls under the Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support.

The S-MET will begin to be fielded in the second quarter of the next fiscal year, with a total of 624 vehicles in Soldiers’ hands by the middle of fiscal 2024, according to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center.

Soldier feedback led to increasing the S-MET’s carrying capacity and mobility, creating alternative methods for casualty evacuation and robotic obscuration, as well as reducing its noise, said Col. Christopher Barnwell, director of the Joint Modernization Command’s Field Experimentation Division.

“Soldiers think outside the box,” Barnwell said of the importance of their input during last week’s Future Ground Combat Vehicles virtual conference.

The S-MET program is also leveraging modular mission payload capabilities, or MMPs, to expand its functions using a common chassis, Bodenhamer said.

“This is important because this shows one of the linkages between robotics efforts,” he said, adding his office often discusses plans across the Army’s robotics community to prevent replication. “Modular mission payloads is a great example of that synergy.”

In April 2019, the Army held a weeklong demonstration with the add-on payloads at Fort Benning, Georgia, to explore ways to enhance the effectiveness of the S-MET.

“Obviously there’s a lot of potential here for the Robotic Combat Vehicles to use some of this, too,” he said, referring to the light and medium RCV variants. “They’re looking closely at the efforts we’re undertaking with these MMPs.”

Requests for information have already been sent out to industry for two MMP capabilities: counter-unmanned aerial system and another for enhanced autonomy.

“We are going to try to quickly get these things out to Soldiers and let them see which ones do and don’t meet their needs,” he said, “and then hopefully procure a quantity of these payloads to further enhance the capability of the S-MET.”

Manned-unmanned teaming

The Army also completed an assessment in March on the Nuclear Biological Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle, or NBCRV, a modified Stryker vehicle with chemical detection sensors.

The assessment, conducted by the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas, added new unmanned, surrogate systems to enhance NBC reconnaissance and surveillance. Each NBCRV controlled an unmanned ground vehicle as a wingman and three UAS aircraft, Barnwell said.

Manned-unmanned teaming operations “extended the range, the area of coverage and reduced the risk to the crew and enabled faster reporting of [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] hazards,” he said.

The requirement for the Assault Breacher Vehicle Teleoperation Kit, which is built on an M1A1 Abrams tank chassis, is also set to be finalized this summer after being tested in last year’s Joint Warfighting Assessment.

The kit allows the two-person crew to step out of the vehicle and remotely control it during dangerous breaching operations.

While the gun tube of the tank is removed, it can still launch mine clearing line charges and includes a lane marking system and front-end plowing attachments.

 “It’s a great use of teleop,” Bodenhamer said. “Probably the best use we’ve ever come up with, in terms of how it fits into the overall impact of bringing the unmanned operation of a platform into the Army.”

As technology improves, artificial intelligence will continually play a larger role in operations, Barnwell said.

“These systems are going to have to be able to do more and more on their own to enable the human operators to focus on the big picture,” he said.

A tank commander, for instance, may need to order a few robotic “wingman” vehicles to drive themselves to a waypoint, avoiding obstacles along the way.

Or, a helicopter pilot may require a UAS to detect and destroy air defense systems ahead of him before arriving to a specific location, he said.

“We’re not talking Skynet,” he said, referring to The Terminator film. “We’re talking about simple things that these systems are going to have to do to enable us as warfighters to operate more efficiently.”

By Sean Kimmons, Army News Service

US Army Adopts New Path Forward for Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle

Friday, June 5th, 2020

OMFV adopts new path forward from lessons learned

FORT MEADE, Md. — The Army’s G-8 discussed a new strategy for the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, following lessons learned after its first request for prototypes was canceled earlier this year.

The OMFV, which will replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, remains on track to be fielded to both active and National Guard armored brigade combat teams starting in fiscal year 2028.

About $4.6 billion is currently invested in the program from fiscal 2020-2026, said Lt. Gen. James Pasquarette during a presentation for the Future Ground Combat Vehicles virtual conference Thursday.

“The initial solicitation required a very aggressive set of initial capabilities on an equally aggressive timeline beyond what our partners in both government and industry could provide,” he said. “To be clear, the Army is absolutely committed to the OMFV program.”

Despite the adjustment costing the Army about $23 million in unrecoverable funds, he said it was still important to reset the program’s azimuth in the right direction.

“Rarely than fail late after spending billions of dollars, like we’ve done in the past many times, the Army learned early and inexpensively,” he said.

After pulling the solicitation, the Army garnered feedback from government and industry partners to chart the next move.

Army Futures Command then adjusted the traditional requirements approach by defining a set of nine characteristics to better focus efforts, he said.

The characteristics — survivability, mobility, growth, lethality, weight, logistics, transportability, manning, and training — will further be refined through a cooperative and iterative process with industry, digital design competitions and Soldier touchpoints to produce the final prototypes for testing, AFC officials said in February.

“The Army believes that this adjusted requirement strategy preserves flexibility much longer into the acquisition process before necessitating significant hardware investments,” Pasquarette said.

The general said the new strategy will spark innovation and competition through a collaborative process that offers several opportunities for Soldiers to provide input.

“Throughout this process, Soldiers will assist the Army and industry partners in refining the vehicle’s characteristics in design and forming the most feasible and acceptable set of technical requirements for final production,” he said.

While there will be challenges due to the complexity of such a program, he said he believes some industry partners will thrive in the non-traditional acquisition setting.

“This strategy is an approach the Army must take to harness the power of innovation of worldwide industry partners, drive new ideas through competition and produce a new infantry combat vehicle that Soldiers must have to fight and win against a near-peer threat in the future,” he said.

In the meantime, the Army has also invested $915 million from fiscal 2020-2026 to develop and field the latest A4 versions of Bradley vehicles to armored units starting in the second quarter of the next fiscal year, he said.

The A4 version will have upgrades to the suspension and track, powertrain, electrical system, mission command features, plus other enhancements and accelerated technologies, he added.

“The U.S. Army is committed to providing our Soldiers the best ground combat systems in the world,” he said. “And under Army Futures Command’s direction and oversight, I’m confident that the armored brigade combat team will remain the dominate ground combat formation for decades to come.”

By Sean Kimmons, Army News Service

Clever New Robot Rover Design Conquers Sand Traps

Monday, May 18th, 2020

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Built with wheeled appendages that can be lifted, a new robot developed with U.S. Army funding has complex locomotion techniques robust enough to allow it to climb sand covered hills and avoid getting stuck. The robot has NASA interested for potential surveying of a planet or the Moon.

Using a move that researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology dubbed rear rotator pedaling, the robot, known as the Mini Rover, climbs a slope by using a design that combines paddling, walking, and wheel spinning motions. The rover’s behaviors were modeled using a branch of physics known as terradynamics.

The journal Science Robotics published the research as a cover article. The Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory and NASA, through the National Robotics Initiative, funded the research.

“This basic research is revealing exciting new approaches for locomotion in complex terrain,” said Dr. Samuel Stanton, a program manager at ARO. “This could lead to platforms capable of intelligently transitioning between wheeled and legged modes of movement to maintain high operational tempo.”

According to the scientists, when loose materials like sand flow, that can create problems for robots moving across it.

“This rover has enough degrees of freedom that it can get out of jams pretty effectively,” said Dan Goldman, the Dunn Family Professor in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “By avalanching materials from the front wheels, it creates a localized fluid hill for the back wheels that is not as steep as the real slope. The rover is always self-generating and self-organizing a good hill for itself.”

A robot built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center pioneered the ability to spin its wheels, sweep the surface with those wheels and lift each of its wheeled appendages where necessary, creating a broad range of potential motions. Using in-house 3-D printers, the Georgia Tech researchers collaborated with the Johnson Space Center to re-create those capabilities in a scaled-down vehicle with four wheeled appendages driven by 12 different motors.

“The rover was developed with a modular mechatronic architecture, commercially available components, and a minimal number of parts,” said Siddharth Shrivastava, an undergraduate student in Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “This enabled our team to use our robot as a robust laboratory tool and focus our efforts on exploring creative and interesting experiments without worrying about damaging the rover, service downtime, or hitting performance limitations.”

The rover’s broad range of movements gave the research team an opportunity to test many variations that were studied using granular drag force measurements and modified Resistive Force Theory. The team began with the gaits explored by the NASA RP15 robot, and experimented with locomotion schemes that could not have been tested on a full-size rover.

The researchers also tested their experimental gaits on slopes designed to simulate planetary and lunar hills using a fluidized bed system known as SCATTER, or Systematic Creation of Arbitrary Terrain and Testing of Exploratory Robots, that could be tilted to evaluate the role of controlling the granular substrate.

In the experiments, the new gait allowed the rover to climb a steep slope with the front wheels stirring up the granular material – poppy seeds for the lab testing – and pushing them back toward the rear wheels. The rear wheels wiggled from side-to-side, lifting and spinning to create a motion that resembles paddling in water. The material pushed to the back wheels effectively changed the slope the rear wheels had to climb, allowing the rover to make steady progress up a hill that might have stopped a simple wheeled robot.

“In our previous studies of pure legged robots, modeled on animals, we had kind of figured out that the secret was to not make a mess,” Goldman said. “If you end up making too much of a mess with most robots, you end up just paddling and digging into the granular material. If you want fast locomotion, we found that you should try to keep the material as solid as possible by tweaking the parameters of motion.”

But simple motions had proved problematic for Mars rovers, which famously got stuck in granular materials. Goldman says this gait discovery might be able to help future rovers avoid that fate.

“This combination of lifting and wheeling and paddling, if used properly, provides the ability to maintain some forward progress even if it is slow,” Goldman said. “Through our laboratory experiments, we have shown principles that could lead to improved robustness in planetary exploration – and even in challenging surfaces on our own planet.”

The researchers hope next to scale up the unusual gaits to larger robots, and to explore the idea of studying robots and their localized environments together.

Though the Mini Rover was designed to study lunar and planetary exploration, the lessons learned could also be applicable to terrestrial locomotion – an area of interest to the Army.

By U.S. Army CCDC Army Research Laboratory Public Affairs

Milrem Robotics’ THeMIS UGV Completes First Deployment in Mali Proving Its Effectiveness and Reliability

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

Milrem Robotics, the provider of robotic solutions for challenging environments, successfully completed its first deployment period of its unmanned ground vehicle, THeMIS, in operation Barkhane in Mali.

The THeMIS was initially deployed to Mali with the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) during a French lead counter-terrorism operation in April 2019.

Up until April 2020, the vehicle was regularly used during patrols by Estonian soldiers and for transporting supplies within their base. Altogether three Estonian platoons utilized the vehicle during their deployments.

„Partitioned urban areas can be challenging, and one cannot always depend on APC support. The opportunity to bring along a half-ton of ammunition and water to places unreachable with an APC added great value to patrols and enhanced combat capability,” said Lt Col Sten Allik, Senior Staff Officer of the Estonian Defence Forces.

“The THeMIS surprised us with its ability to withstand the tough environment. The heat and harsh terrain put the vehicle to the test; however, it passed with ease,” Allik added.

During the deployment, the THeMIS traversed 1200 km in one of the world’s harshest terrains of lava rock soil and climates climbing to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade. The UGV was operational for over 330 hours.

“We collected a lot of valuable data and feedback during the deployment and although EDF’s experience with the THeMIS was positive, there is always room for improvement,” said Kuldar Väärsi, CEO of Milrem Robotics. “However, after this experience in Mali, we are confident that the THeMIS is more than capable of supporting operations in extremely hot climates,” Väärsi added.

In the future the EDF would like to utilize the THeMIS together with additional ISR, communication support, jamming, and remote weapon system capabilities. “The possibility to detect and neutralize the enemy or an explosive device from a distance is a crucial capability. It is easier to risk the vehicle than a human life. If we can reduce the risk to life in combat situations, we can increase operational speed,” Allik said.

Milrem Robotics will continue to support the EDF in mission areas in the future and is currently preparing for possible future deployments as early as the end of 2020.

The Estonian Defence Forces have also detailed their experience in their Yearbook 2019.

Team Textron M5 Ripsaw Tank

Sunday, February 23rd, 2020

What the heck, it’s Sunday, a great time to watch videos. This one of the Textron optionally-manned M5 Ripsaw electric tank shows you what it can do thanks to robotic controls. Yep, that’s a UGV coming out of the front of the Ripsaw. It’s a robot that births robots.

ADS Showcases Updates To Hydroid REMUS 600 Unmanned Underwater Vehicle

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

In the past, Hydroid’s REMUS Underwater Vehicle would complete its mission and it would take 10 hours or more to download the datasets. With the addition of the new HISAS 2040 Module, the data is processed during the mission, so users get high-def images in near real time. Here is the ADS press release.

Hydroid Integrates HISAS 2040 Module with In-Mission Processor onto a REMUS 600 Unmanned Underwater Vehicle.

The in-mission processor (pictured in red) allows real-time processing of HISAS data, giving operators the ability to download high-resolution images immediately when the vehicle returns from its mission.

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) play a crucial role within the defense space with their ability to carry out unique missions. UUVs provide many advantages to the fleet with their autonomy and long endurance, making missions safer and easier to accomplish. Their modularity allows for them to be outfitted with different payloads for varying mission requirements.

REMUS 600 UUV applications include:

·         Mine Countermeasure Operations

·         Hydrographic Surveys

·         Search & Salvage Operations

·         Marine Research

·         Environmental Monitoring

·         Debris Field Mapping

View Product Details

The REMUS 600 UUV from Hydroid, Inc. is positively buoyant and is designed to operate to depths of 600 meters. With mission duration capability of up to 24 hours, the REMUS 600 delivers unprecedented endurance. Sonar technology is used on these UUVs to capture images for organic mine countermeasure, hydrographic surveys, area searches, and surveillance and reconnaissance.

HISAS 2040 provides up to 2cm by 2cm resolution across a 300-meter swath. Synthetic aperture sonar uses algorithms to synthetically lengthen the aperture, providing consistent resolution across the entire swath, both along and across track, as opposed to traditional real aperture side scan sonars. Because of the high resolution of HISAS, the files are very large and can take several hours to download after a mission is complete.

To help solve this problem, Hydroid, Inc. integrated an in-mission processor on a REMUS 600 Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) with the KONGSBERG High-Resolution Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Sonar (HISAS) 2040.

Pictured: High-resolution Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Sonar (HISAS) 2040 images from a REMUS 600 Unmanned Underwater Vehicle

With the in-mission processor, HISAS data is processed and compressed in real-time along with the navigation data, allowing immediate download of the sonar imagery when the vehicle returns from its mission through a 10GB Ethernet switch. This is ideal for time-sensitive missions like mine countermeasures, where faster data access means safer, more efficient operations. Other HISAS applications include hydrographic surveys, pipeline inspection and rapid environmental assessment.
Learn more about Hydroid’s core capabilities »

Robotics Update: ASI Receives SBIR Funding for Deep Learning Architecture to Support Multiple Sensors in GPS-denied Environments

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Mendon, Utah – Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) has been awarded a SBIR Phase I grant from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Ground Vehicles Systems Center (formerly TARDEC) to develop a Deep Learning (DL) architecture that will support sensor fusion in environments with limited, or no, GPS.

“Environmental sensing today typically includes cameras, LiDAR and radar,” said Jeff Ferrin, CTO of ASI. “Each of these devices has a specific purpose, but not all of them work well in every situation. For example, cameras are great at collecting high-resolution color information, but do not provide much useful information in the dark.”  

 

In addition to the challenges faced by cameras in poorly lit or degraded visual environments, LiDAR and radar sensors also have limitations. LiDAR performs well in most light conditions but may yield false positives in heavy rain, fog, snow or dust, due to its use of light spectrum wavelengths. Radar usually penetrates these degraded visual environments, but often lacks spatial resolution.

 

“ASI’s goal is to design a deep learning architecture that fuses information from LiDAR, radar and cameras,” said Ferrin. “We plan to build upon machine learning techniques we have already developed for LiDAR data.”

 

Deep learning is a branch of artificial intelligence and machine learning that allows valuable information to be extracted from large volumes of data. Cameras are often used in deep learning models because of their high output of information in regularly sampled data structures.

 

The case is different for LiDAR and radar. Naturally, these two sensor types do not provide regularly sampled data, making it difficult to formulate problems using current deep learning frameworks. This gap in current research efforts – deep learning for LiDAR and radar – is the focus of this grant.

 

Improved utilization of data from multiple devices can paint a more accurate picture of a vehicle’s surroundings, keeping it safer and making it more efficient. The details of the grant solicitation state, “It is anticipated that harnessing a wide variety of sensors altogether will benefit the autonomous vehicles by providing a more general and robust self-driving system, especially for navigating in different types of challenging weather, environments, road conditions and traffic.”

 

“In the last few years, we have seen a growing need in the world of robotics to advance industry capabilities in machine learning, deep learning, and other artificial intelligence algorithms to improve performance in these challenging environments,” said Ferrin.

 

Details of the Phase I grant awarded to ASI include developing a deep learning architecture that will support sensors that are not vision-based, such as radar and LiDAR, along with supporting sensor fusion. ASI is required to demonstrate the feasibility of the deep learning architecture in a simulation environment, including a road following system that controls an autonomous vehicle, on a course with obstacles and a degraded visual environment.

www.asirobots.com

Shape-shifting Robots Built from ‘Smarticles’ Could Navigate Army Operations

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A U.S. Army project took a new approach to developing robots — researchers built robots entirely from smaller robots known as “smarticles,” unlocking the principles of a potentially new locomotion technique.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and Northwestern University published their findings in the journal Science Robotics (see related links below).

The research could lead to robotic systems capable of changing their shapes, modalities and functions, said Sam Stanton, program manager, complex dynamics and systems at the Army Research Office, an element of U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, the Army’s corporate research laboratory.

“For example, as envisioned by the Army Functional Concept for Maneuver, a robotic swarm may someday be capable of moving to a river and then autonomously forming a structure to span the gap,” he said.

The 3D-printed smarticles — short for smart active particles — can do just one thing: flap their two arms. But when five of these smarticles are confined in a circle, they begin to nudge one another, forming a robophysical system known as a “supersmarticle” that can move by itself. Adding a light or sound sensor allows the supersmarticle to move in response to the stimulus — and even be controlled well enough to navigate a maze.

The notion of making robots from smaller robots — and taking advantage of the group capabilities that arise by combining individuals — could provide mechanically based control over very small robots. Ultimately, the emergent behavior of the group could provide a new locomotion and control approach for small robots that could potentially change shapes.

“These are very rudimentary robots whose behavior is dominated by mechanics and the laws of physics,” said Dan Goldman, a Dunn Family Professor in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the project’s principal investigator. “We are not looking to put sophisticated control, sensing and computation on them all. As robots become smaller and smaller, we’ll have to use mechanics and physics principles to control them because they won’t have the level of computation and sensing we would need for conventional control.”

The foundation for the research came from an unlikely source: a study of construction staples. By pouring these heavy-duty staples into a container with removable sides, former doctoral student Nick Gravish — now a faculty member at the University of California San Diego — created structures that would stand by themselves after the container’s walls were removed.

Shaking the staple towers eventually caused them to collapse, but the observations led to a realization that simple entangling of mechanical objects could create structures with capabilities well beyond those of the individual components.

“Dan Goldman’s research is identifying physical principles that may prove essential for engineering emergent behavior in future robot collectives as well as new understanding of fundamental tradeoffs in system performance, responsiveness, uncertainty, resiliency and adaptivity,” Stanton said.

The researchers used a 3D printer to create battery-powered smarticles, which have motors, simple sensors and limited computing power. The devices can change their location only when they interact with other devices while enclosed by a ring.

“Even though no individual robot could move on its own, the cloud composed of multiple robots could move as it pushed itself apart and shrink as it pulled itself together,” Goldman said. “If you put a ring around the cloud of little robots, they start kicking each other around and the larger ring — what we call a supersmarticle — moves around randomly.”

The researchers noticed that if one small robot stopped moving, perhaps because its battery died, the group of smarticles would begin moving in the direction of that stalled robot. The researchers learned to control the movement by adding photo sensors to the robots that halt the arm flapping when a strong beam of light hits one of them.

“If you angle the flashlight just right, you can highlight the robot you want to be inactive, and that causes the ring to lurch toward or away from it, even though no robots are programmed to move toward the light,” Goldman said. “That allowed steering of the ensemble in a very rudimentary, stochastic way.”

In future work, Goldman envisions more complex interactions that use the simple sensing and movement capabilities of the smarticles. “People have been interested in making a certain kind of swarm robots that are composed of other robots,” he said. “These structures could be reconfigured on demand to meet specific needs by tweaking their geometry.”

Swarming formations of robotic systems could be used to enhance situational awareness and mission-command capabilities for small Army units in difficult-to-maneuver environments like cities, forests, caves or other rugged terrain.

The research project also received funding from National Science Foundation.

robotics.sciencemag.org/content/4/34/eaax4316

www.army.mil/futures

www.army.mil/ccdc

www.arl.army.mil

Story by U.S. Army CCDC Army Research Laboratory Public Affairs

Photos by Rob Felt of Georgia Tech