Unmanned ground vehicles find their niche
A decade of counterinsurgency operations has boosted interest in unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) of all kinds, although real-world operational uses have been limited. A good many systems have been designed, built and tested, often in the hands of users, but few types have seen routine use, and applications remain narrow.
UGVs have been widely used, for example, for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). These machines are tele-operated rather than truly unmanned or autonomous, and are short-range systems—they depend on people or vehicles to put them within range of the objective. Simple “throwbots” that provide operators with a view around a corner or inside a building are also catching on, because they are small and light and—with modern electronic hardware and software—can gather and transmit useful intelligence.
Since the U.S.'s first Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles in 2004, UGVs have been gaining attention. Oshkosh Defense's Team TerraMax competed in the second contest in 2005, with the company promoting the use of large driverless vehicles to reduce the number of personnel exposed to the hazards of driving convoys in hostile areas.
So far, however, U.S. forces have not fielded driverless cargo vehicles, although the TerraMax technology—basically, a guidance, navigation and control kit mated to a modern military vehicle—continues to be developed and evaluated, as Oshkosh collaborates with the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
Cargo UGVs were deployed by the U.S.Warfighting Laboratory in a large experiment at Fort Pickett, Va., last summer to demonstrate ways of reducing the Marines' logistical footprint. The vehicles ran safely and successfully at up to 35 mph and on unpaved roads, operated by Marines with three days of instruction. In a later demonstration, two cargo unmanned aerial vehicles operated in fully autonomous mode, and in leader-follower mode with a manned vehicle.
Israel's Guardium program has also shown that UGVs are practical. However, with a large vehicle, safety is a concern. Accidents involving military convoys and civilians happen in the best of times, and the perception of unmanned vehicles rolling through populated areas is a problem.
At the other end of the size scale, the Pentagon's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (Jieddo) last year requested up to 4,000 “ultra-light reconnaissance robots” for Afghanistan, in response to a joint urgent-needs statement from field commanders. Unlike their larger cousins equipped with advanced tools for EOD, the smaller machines provide a simple means of looking around a corner or inspecting a suspicious object without risking a soldier's life.
These small UGVs are especially valuable in dense urban terrain and inside buildings. Users toss the robot through a door or window to check for occupants; they are equally useful in caves and tunnels.
Jieddo bought 100 each of four contenders for field trials in Afghanistan: iRobot's 110 FirstLook, Recon Robotics' Recon Scout XT, Macro USA's Armadillo V3, and's Dragon Runner 10. Recon Robotics is the smallest at 1.2 lb.; FirstLook and Armadillo weigh 5 lb.; and Dragon Runner is 10 lb.
The larger machines are generally more mobile, capable of climbing bigger obstacles and carrying robotic arms or other accessories, but they are less portable for dismounted patrols. They do share common features, such as lithium-ion batteries, handheld controllers and cameras with infrared lights. Radio control, which is essentially line-of-sight, works within a few hundred meters.
The Recon Scout is perhaps the only one that can be described as throwable. The makers say the dumbbell-shaped robot can be tossed more than 100 ft. The low weight also means that with a telescoping rod, Recon Scout becomes a “camera on a stick” for peering into inaccessible spaces. It is the most successful small UGV so far, with 1,300 in use by the U.S. military.
The defense side of the iRobot company is best known for the PackBot range of larger UGVs. FirstLook, introduced in 2011, was derived from a small UGV called Landroid intended to follow troops and act as a communications relay to increase radio range. Users quickly decided a camera-carrying scout would be more useful.
iRobot CEO Colin Angle says the cost of small UGVs “should make them cheap enough to be disposable” and distributed in large numbers.
The incarnations of Dragon Runner have been around since 2005. The DR-10 is the smallest of the family; the larger DR-20 is fitted with a manipulator arm as standard.
MacroUSA's Armadillo is modular.Options include a stair/obstacle climbing kit, turret with thermal camera, improvised explosive device disruptor; and robotic arm. A maritime version evaluated for anti-piracy operations would be tossed into holds and compartments ahead of a boarding team.
After evaluation, Jieddo placed a $14.4 million order for the FirstLook 110 and a $12.9 million order for the Dragon Runner 10. However, the decision was controversial, and Macro USA launched a legal challenge to the selection process, which it says unfairly favored other suppliers
“The government violated acquisition regulations and continues to do so in an attempt to award to whomever they choose or like without regard to quality, cost or performance,” says Bob Ramos, MacroUSA CEO. The company has been successful in five challenges.
Israel is a leader in deploying UGVs as large as manned vehicles. G-Nius, a joint venture betweenand , continues to develop generations of Guardium, the first operational unmanned patrol vehicle, which is deployed along the Gaza border. Guardium's size is not driven by the need to protect occupants from attack, and the vehicle can park and operate at a vantage point for long periods.
G-Nius is working on the Guardium 3 (formerly called Nachshon), which employs a vehicle autonomy system that can be fitted to wheeled or tracked vehicles of various weights and sizes. The first platform for Guardium 3 is the Ford F350 truck, but the system can be adapted to any vehicle. In fact, the company has tested an unmanned M113 armored personnel carrier employing the same control system. Guardium 3 completed developmental testing and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) placed orders for the systems.
These vehicles will have a full mission system complement, including remotely controlled weapon mount. Guardium 3 offers expanded capabilities over the original unmanned patrol vehicle, including enhanced operation on the move and cross-terrain mobility.
The IDF is moving to formalize the UGV procurement process. G-Nius recently partnered with a U.S. company to manufacture Guardium in America, enabling the Israeli defense ministry to order the system with U.S. aid funds.
Ben-Gurion Airport continues to explore the integration of unmanned ground systems as part of its perimeter security. The robots would be operating in a sterile zone between the outer perimeter and the inner operational area, but bidders are required to meet stringent safety requirements formulated by the IDF's land forces technology branch, which oversees military robotics applications. Once selected, the airport plans to lease the robots from the operating company.
One system considered for this application is Amstaf 6, by Autonomous Robotics Industries, which has protected the perimeter of a town near Jerusalem. A follow-on experiment is planned at another site in the coming months.
Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for a look at some of the unconventional ways in which UGVs get around, or go to AviationWeek.com/ugv