May 07 2015
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is working on creating robotic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems that can act as teammates for dismounted soldiers in the field, where the units sense their environment and navigate on their own to perform a mission designated by the soldier.
Brett Piekarski, Ph.D, program director for the ARL’s Micro Autonomous Systems Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance, says soldiers have used robotics — such as ThrowBots, Recon Scouts, Puma, and Raven systems — in theater recently.
“Those units were in response to rapid fielding requests, but they have little to no autonomy, although they provide a lot of capability for soldiers to have situational awareness when they are used to look in a building, over a hill, or in a culvert,” Piekarski says. “But to use them, the soldier has to put his weapon down and look at a control screen and other soldiers have to be there to protect him. We want to task a robotic platform that acts as a teammate to the soldier where it would have the intelligence to execute a command without the hands-on guidance of the soldier.”
Piekarski notes ARL’s collaborative technology alliances are government, industry, and academia research partnerships focused on Army transformation technologies. He says a micro-mechanics center researches how to scale robotics down and understand the aerodynamics of small propulsion systems, while a micro-electronics center is looking at scaling down sensors and processors to allow more efficient payloads and power use. A center for autonomy is working on systems that sense the environment and then move rapidly through it, and another center is working on the human-robot teamwork relationship.
One of ARL’s goals is to produce a UAV that would fit in the palm of a soldier’s hand or in his pants cargo pocket.
“We have systems one kilogram in size that can fly autonomously in a building and map it,” Piekarski says. “We’re seeking to scale that weight down to 20 grams, but there’s also the question of robustness of the unit because the Army needs it to work in every environment.”
A small scale UAV recently was tested at Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., to demonstrate how the UAV can team with a soldier. Brendan Byrne, an ARL engineer, says the test involved a 2-1/2-foot wide quad-rotor UAV.
“The UAV performed a successful mapping demo,” Byrne says. “It took off, approached the building, flew in and out of windows and doorways, and operated in hallways and corridors cluttered with bookcases and other obstacles. It performed very well inside the building.”
However, when the UAV moved back to an outdoor environment, it didn’t perform as well, Byrne says, because environmental factors such as bright light and open land came into play. “The human-robotic teaming worked and showed these systems are very capable,” he notes, “but to have the ability to move from indoors to outdoors, from low lighting to bright lighting, in both low and high wind speeds, they still are not capable of dealing with all of those things.”
Byrne adds the test UAV didn’t have the sensors on board that could see long range, which was part of the reason why it didn’t work well in the very bright and shadowing exercise.
However, Piekarski is confident that given time, the ARL and research centers will solve the issues of size, efficiency and autonomy, allowing small handheld robotics to function autonomously and carry out the missions assigned by soldiers.
About the author: Alan M. Petrillo is a Tucson, Ariz., journalist who writes for national and regional magazines and newspapers. He’s the author of the historical mystery, Full Moon; the nonfiction work, Ice Hockey in the Desert; and his newest historical mystery, Asylum Lane, all available at www.amazon.com.