Unmanned vehicle platforms and related technologies continue to be developed for a wide range of military applications, and although debate may swirl about levels of autonomous behavior in unmanned systems – including military robots – one thing’s for certain: Military robots are lightening the load, literally, for soldiers.
With a soldier’s backpack for a three-day mission weighing 130 pounds or more, robots that can help carry supplies are a welcome addition. In fact, the U.S. Army has identified physical overburden as one of its top five science and technology challenges. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a program dedicated to developing semi-autonomous legged robots, which it refers to as the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), with the ultimate goal of sending LS3s out with soldiers.
Boston Dynamics’ “BigDog,” for example, can carry loads of 340 pounds, run at 4 mph, and walk across muddy or rocky terrain. Standing 2.5 feet tall, and 3 feet long, the robot resembles a large dog or small mule, and its four legs mimic a mammal’s motions. The robot can be used to move supplies in and out of dangerous areas, thereby minimizing risks for soldiers. With funding from the Army Research Laboratory’s Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance (RCTA) program, Boston Dynamics is adding a manipulator “arm” to BigDog, enabling the robot to throw heavy objects, such as a 50-pound cinder block.
Carrying a wounded soldier off the battlefield is another area where military robots are extremely useful. Vecna’s Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR), for example, was developed to lift injured soldiers and get them to a safe location for medical assistance, a task with life-saving potential.
In order to carry out these activities, robots have complex onboard computer systems processing data received from a variety of sensors that enable the robot to perform the various tasks for which it has been programmed. The computerized control system regulates all functions from the power source to the platform stabilization system that keeps the robot balanced and navigating correctly regardless of the terrain.
Rugged precision sensors such as fiber optic gyros (FOGs) and FOG-based inertial systems are key elements integrated into most commercial and military robots’ control systems as they provide positioning, stabilization, and navigation data essential to the functionality of the robot. FOGs are extremely accurate, solid state sensors that provide essential information to the control system regarding the robot’s motion. Without this critical data from the FOGs, the robots and/or their payload would be unstable. In terms of autonomous navigation, FOGs or FOG-based inertial systems provide a precise navigation solution, with or without GNSS input.
KVH’s FOGs and FOG-based inertial systems, such as the compact, high performance 1750 IMU and the DSP-1750 single and dual axis gyros are integrated into some of the most successful robotic systems currently in use in military, industrial, and commercial applications, providing continuous, highly accurate data for precision pointing, platform stabilization, guidance, and navigation, even in GNSS-denied environments.
A recent Department of Defense report on the role of autonomous capabilities in military applications indicates the need for continued development in a wide range of systems, including robots and unmanned vehicles for land, air, and water, and underscores a balanced perspective on autonomous behavior: “The actions of a program or robot are bounded by the information it has, the amount of time available for computation and the limitations of its algorithms—thus, the independence of an [unmanned system] is fixed by the designers…Autonomy is, by itself, not a solution to any problem. The utility of an autonomous capability is a function of the ecology of the specific mission needs, the operating environment, the users and the vehicle—there is no value without context.” Whatever the level of autonomy that may be deemed appropriate for unmanned vehicle platforms, it will always be crucial that these systems have extremely precise sensors and fiber optic gyros to ensure successful completion of the task.