The proliferation of attacks on US troops in Iraq by means of improvised explosive devices has meant that the safe discovery and disposal of explosives play an important role in minimising casualties. Increasingly the US military is making use of unmanned ground systems-robots, in other words, to help with these tasks. It is also acquiring sophisticated gear to protect the flesh-and-blood personnel who are also involved in these activities.
The propagation of the improvised explosive devices used by US adversaries in Iraq makes it impossible and undesirable for humans to deal directly with every disposal task. Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have been used for explosives disposal since the Kosovo operations of the 1990s, and much has changed since then.
A Joint Robotics Program (JRP) was established to coordinate technology transfer from the private sector and academia on behalf of all the services and to promote the use of interoperable standards. With operations in Iraq taking center stage, the program’s mission shifted to support current operations.
Between 2004 and 2006, the JRP focused primarily on procuring available UGVs and deploying them to Iraq. The program initially acquired 162 UGV units representing five different vendors and nine different configurations. By 2006, that number of robots deployed to theater had increased to 400.
As recently as 2006, JRP was scrambling to buy off-the-shelf robots despite their use of proprietary systems and technologies and their lack of interoperability and adherence to standards. More recently, manufacturers of program-approved robots have ramped up their manufacturing capabilities, so that now standards-compliant UGVs by the dozens are being shipped to Iraq every month.
“The units sent to the theater at that earlier time worked with their own control systems and were not necessarily interoperable,” admitted Bob Quinn, general manager for Talon robots at Foster-Miller, a manufacturing subsidiary of QinetiQ based in Waltham, Mass. “But it sure beat the alternative. The sheer numbers of IED threats had increased the number of disposal missions from one every week to 15 per day per squad. And they only have 15 minutes to work before they come under enemy fire.” Foster Miller robots were among those sent to Iraq by the JRP beginning in 2004.
Things began to change last year when the JRP narrowed the number of vendors to two-Foster-Miller and iRobot-and the procurement was formalised under the Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) Man Transportable Robotic Systems program. The Foster-Miller Talon and iRobot Pacbot units now being delivered to Iraq are both compatible with the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems (JAUS). JAUS is an industry-developed message passing framework that specifies data formats and communication methods for unmanned systems, thus promoting system interoperability.
EOD operations in Iraq have changed in a number of ways over the last year. Iraqi insurgents had actually been targeting robots in a sort of war of attrition, according to Quinn, in order to force human bomb disposal personnel to replace them.
In response, EOD teams have been equipped with four robots instead of two, said Quinn. Damaged robots are being repaired and sent back to their units quickly. Also, engineering and maneuvering force units, and not just EOD squads, are being equipped with UGVs dedicated to disposal discovery and removal, said Colonel Jim Braden, the JRP program manager.
EOD-squad robots are tasked with the disarming of IEDs, Braden explained. “They are looking for a disrupter switch from which to disarm explosive devices,” he added. “This requires more dexterity and an advanced gripper device so that the robot can actually deal with the device.”
The engineering and maneuver force unit robots are designed to move a suspicious device out of the way or to blow it up in place by dropping a small charge on it. “These units deal in this way with smaller explosive devices,” said Braden. “More challenging situations require calling the EOD unit forward.”
EOD robots have advanced in the last year, as well, according to Quinn, by interfacing them with mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, the lumbering, heavily armored trucks that protect personnel form IED blasts. “They are deploying the robots remotely and operating them from inside the MRAP so that personnel don’t have to exit MRAP and be exposed to sniper fire,” he said.
The increased demand for UGVs is reflected in the Foster-Miller’s production rates. “Four years ago we were delivering 100 units per year,” said Quinn. “We shipped 102 robots in the month of January 2008 alone.”
EOD robots are also exhibiting greater longevity than before, according to Quinn, and robot reliability has increased tremendously over the last couple of years. “The mean time to failure is up to 400 hours not counting battle damage,” he said. “The initial requirements were for eight hours of operational time.” This enhanced reliability has been derived from the lessons learned in-theater, involving primarily the relocation and ruggedisation of the UGV electronics.
Another important development contributing to the longevity of the EOD robots has been the establishment of four robot hospitals in theater. These units replace damaged parts, usually arms and cameras, and return the robots to duty within hours.
“The robot hospitals are very important,” said Quinn. “Before, if a robot was blown up it was a useless piece of metal. We have found that a robot can be blown up thirteen times on average before it is out of service. The fourteenth time it is beyond repair.”
For the future, the interoperability among robotics systems will become increasingly important to the U.S. military. Work began on the JAUS protocol in 1994, but it is only now being baked into requirements for unmanned ground vehicles.
“The whole push to interoperability was sponsored by DoD to reduce its costs,” noted Carl Evans, senior engineer at Applied Perception, Inc. in Cranberry, Pa., and chair of a JAUS working group subcommittee. “We are seeing JAUS compliance being specified in RFPs for new contracts.”
Braden added that all of the UGVs being acquired through his office are now JAUS compliant. But JAUS compliance does not translate into perfect interoperability, at least not just yet.
“Each system has its unique controller although the interfaces have grown closer,” said Braden. “They are drawing closer to a common Xbox-type of controller that is plugged into a ruggedised laptop or other ruggedised display.”
As unmanned ground vehicles become more sophisticated, there will be a mounting incentive to make them completely interoperable and joint. One key characteristics of future UGVs will likely be the capability of groups of robots to collaborate with each other, a feature that will require tight integration of software and systems.
“Right now, unmanned ground systems in Iraq are not collaborating in any kind of intelligent way,” said Steve D’Antonio, director of the robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “There are hundreds of robots in Iraq, all tele-operated doing IED remediation and there is no application where any are communicating with each other or trading off tasks.”
SRI International, an R&D organisation based in Menlo Park, Calif., has been doing research and developing team-based systems in which large collections of robots work together on tasks. “One of these involves developing a framework for the coordination of one-hundred or more ground robots to search for suspicious objects and to do it in way that the collective behavior is greater than sum of its parts,” said Charlie Ortiz, program director in robotics in SRI’s artificial intelligence laboratory.
Robotic actors in such a scenario require interoperability in the form of a common communications language, Ortiz emphasised. “Agents must be able to share information valuable to the mission if it is to succeed,” he said.
Jointness, for Ortiz, is important when the separate services consider resource sharing. “If the services each have pools of robotic resources, they probably won’t be happy with them if they are working completely independently,” he said. “If they want to share resources, then you need to grapple with the notion of how they are to work together. If the Army needs 10 extra robots and the Marines can spare them, there should be some way to get help by borrowing.” But such a scenario is unlikely to succeed unless the two services have joint requirements and interoperable systems.
When human warfighters intervene in the EOD process they rely on specialised bomb suits to protect them. Research performed by Allen-Vanguard Corporation, an Ottawa-based developer and manufacturer of EOD gear, found that there are four aspects to the blast threat to the human body: overpressure, fragmentation, impact and heat.
“Equipment must protect someone facing a blast in close proximity against all of those four threats,” said John Carson, the company’s marketing manager. “What we have done as a company is to bring to market integrated ensembles of suits and helmets that connect with one another and operate as a single system.” Allen-Vanguard’s customers include U.S. defense and law enforcement agencies.
The company’s EOD suit mitigates threats from overpressure and fragmentation with a proprietary recipe of materials it has developed over years of research and development. The suits also include fire retardant materials such as Kevlar.
The Allen-Vanguard equipment is also certified to operate in the “harsh radio frequency environment” that is found in Iraq. The company’s EOD suit helmet is equipped with a sophisticated communications system. Certification in this case means that the EOD suit communications system does not interfere with the electronic countermeasures that U.S. forces take to block the radio signals that are often used to detonate improvised explosive devices.
“Our research over a series of years keeps up with evolving threats such as chemical and biological agents, as well as RF,” said Carson. “Research and development is one of our core capabilities.
“Instead of simply producing prototype and seeing how works,” he added, “we do research to gain an understanding of the threat individuals face and then take appropriate technologies and engineer them to produce a prototype. There are many steps that go into producing a prototype and we try to eliminate the guesswork. This process has gained us the confidence of many end users.”
Global Armour, a company with corporate headquarters in Connecticut, and manufacturing facilities in South Africa, sells EOD suits in 17 markets worldwide and has gone through seven generations of EOD gear just in the last few years. The latest iteration includes increased neck and spine protection and an enhanced communications system, related Bruce Angus, the company’s technical manager at its facility in Ashwood, South Africa.
The company developed a new spine protection system that it is has integrated into its new EOD suit. The device, which resembles the back of an armadillo because of its interlocking plates, allows the wearer to bend forward, but prevents the spine from snapping back in the face of a blast.
The enhanced neck protection was brought about through greater integration of the suit with the helmet. “The helmet rests on the operator’s shoulders,” Angus explained. “The operator’s neck no longer bears the weight of the helmet.”
Global Armour’s EOD suit also includes a combination of Nomex and Kevlar for fire retardation. A combination of those and other materials have been shown to provide strong internal ballistic support and protection from fragmentation, according to Angus. The suit also comes with optional additional steel blast plates for additional protection caused from the detonation energy created by a blast.
The suit is also equipped with a cooling system that allows an operator to wear it for an hour and a half, a duration which may also be lengthened to three and a half hours. Angus noted, however, that individual EOD operators normally work for no more than an hour before handing the task off to someone else.
Global Armour is now working on yet another iteration of its EOD suit. The next generation, said Angus, will provide even greater blast protection and be lighter in weight by incorporating the latest high-end materials.