Magazine article National Defense

Robot-Makers Ponder Next Moves as Wars Wind Down

Magazine article National Defense

Robot-Makers Ponder Next Moves as Wars Wind Down

Article excerpt

Among the trucks, fighting vehicles, helicopters, guns and other equipment moved out of Iraq by the end of December were hundreds of ground robots.

The end of the nearly nine-year war closed one chapter for a technology that came into its own during the conflict. As improvised explosive devices became a scourge and leading killer of coalition forces and civilians, the military rushed into the theater explosive ordnance disposal robots that proved to be invaluable lifesaving tools.

But what's next?

The technology is still being used in Afghanistan, although that conflict is scheduled to wind down in the next few years.

Executives at the three major suppliers of military robots--iRohot, QinetiQ North America and Remotec--believe that there are still opportunities out there despite the anticipated drawdown, a lack of permanent programs and a Defense Department budget outlook that many have called "grim."

"There continues to be worldwide demand for this capability," said Ed Godere, senior vice president for unmanned systems at QinetiQ. "As we see things winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of IEDs as the weapon of choice by insurgents around the world is becoming more prevalent."

There are other applications besides route clearance and explosive ordnance disposal, robotics executives told National Defense. In the civilian world, hazardous-material disposal and police special weapons and tactics operations along with perimeter security are a few. In the defense realm, reconnaissance and logistics robots are other ways in which they are being used.

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The problem is that there are currently few programs of record.

The Navy, the executive agent in charge of developing and procuring bomb disposal robots for all four services, prior to the Iraq War had fielded one large EOD robot: the remote ordnance neutralization system or RONS, which was developed in the 1990s by Remotec, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. These are 700-pound-plus machines that were mostly envisioned for base security and needed to be towed by a vehicle. The Navy had acquired 270 of them, and upgrades were made during the Iraq war. Their size made them ideal for removing large objects such as artillery shells from the field.

As roadside bombs became the Iraqi insurgents' weapon of choice, EOD teams sent out urgent requests for robots that were lighter and could be transported in the back of a Humvee. Three companies quickly responded with off-the-shelf machines: iRobot, Foster-Miller and Vanguard-Allen.

The Vanguard machines' reliability were called into question, and quickly disappeared from the battlefield. The Foster-Miller Talon and the iRobot PackBot became the EOD specialists' primary tools. QinetiQ eventually acquired Foster-Miller.

The first robots were basically prototypes. There were issues with them breaking down, said Joe Dyer, chief operating officer at iRobot.

One of the most important developments of the Iraq war was that ground robots eventually proved themselves to be "robust pieces of military equipment with reliability," he said. That wasn't the case at the outset. But as the following iterations made their way into the field, they became more durable. Manufacturers also made improvements to controllers, communications links, chassis and other facets.

Another watershed moment came when the infantry adapted them for reconnaissance missions, Dyer said. Soldiers want robots to look around the corners of buildings or inside them before they stick out their heads. As these EOD robots were being fielded, the now defunct Army modernization program, the Future Combat Systems, was working on a ground recon robot. It is one of the few technologies that survived that program's cancelation, Dyer said.

That infantry program, an Air Force range/runway clearance robot, and the Navy's effort to build a family of EOD robots to replace the ones rushed into the field are about the only programs of record executives see on the horizon. …

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