The Maneuver Center of Excellence put a dose of sci-fi on center stage at the 2012 Robotics Rodeo.
More than 40 vendors and five universities showcased nearly 75 different technologies during the 10-day event at Fort Benning’s McKenna Urban Operations Complex. It kicked off June 20 and ended June 29.
Sponsored by the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, known as TARDEC, and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, through the Maneuver Battle Lab, the Robotics Rodeo provides a venue for the military to harness the research and development community’s potential to counter the complex and adaptive threats on today’s battlefield, organizers said. It brings together the defense, homeland security, academia and industry communities to energize robots in support of the war fighter.
“It’s a great marriage of both industry and academia, which is what we strive for,” said Harry Lubin, the Maneuver Battle Lab’s Live Experimentation Branch chief. “Fort Benning is the proponent for Army ground robotics, so it was a great fit. A difference this year is we focused on specific tactical events.”
Innovators participated in task-based scenarios and open robotics demonstrations aimed at motivating industry, educating developers and gaining insight into the current and emerging state of ground robotics technology and artificial intelligence, officials said. From an Army standpoint, it was an opportunity for scientists and engineers from government and industry to link up with soldiers who might someday employ the robots and unmanned systems in combat.
Addressing capability caps in defeating the improvised explosive device, or IED, threat was a central theme throughout the Rodeo, said Jim Parker, associate director for ground vehicle robotics at TARDEC. This year, it was set up for unmanned platforms to perform in three operational vignettes: they had to provide supplies, dig hasty fighting positions for a squad, and autonomously search and detect the presence of opposing forces.
“We have a high level of confidence in these robots,” Parker said. “This is a very important event for us. In general, we were very pleased with what we saw here.”
This marked the third Robotics Rodeo overall and the second at Fort Benning, which last hosted the event in 2010.
It was the first time JIEDDO participated in a challenged-based acquisition process, said Matt Way, a program integrator with the agency, which was created to attack networks, train the force and defeat the device. The organization set up four events – endurance, detection, disruption and reconnaissance – based on problem sets where robots could play a role in counter-IED operations.
“We definitely learned some lessons,” Way said. “There are some things we can tweak and improve, but overall, we were impressed with how everything ran and the results we saw. We use our intel arm to keep track of the latest (enemy) trends out there and try to look ahead at where we need to be in delivering new technology. Robotics take the man out of the loop, and any time we can find a solution with mobility and suitability to support the soldiers, it’s better to put that robot in harm’s way than the individual.”
The robots on display at the Rodeo ranged in size from handheld devices to 4,500-pound vehicles, said Ed Davis, the Maneuver Battle Lab’s deputy director. Outcomes will be used to further support the MCoE’s “Squad: Foundation of the Decisive Force” initiative by advancing possible robotic technology solutions.
“Most of the time, those who engage enemy forces are at that squad level, so we’re looking at how we can reduce the load on a soldier,” he said. “With robotics, we’re looking at whether we can offload some of that equipment and then get it to him when he needs it. It also increases his situational awareness. If he knows more about what he’s up against when he has a mission, he can tailor that load specifically for that. We’re looking at a lot of things in trying to help soldier effectiveness in that small unit.”
The Robotics Rodeo lasted only four days in 2010. Lubin said he’s optimistic sponsors will want to return as the joint community used the event to target solutions and recommendations for further experimentation or rapid fielding.
“We really need a more collaborative effort to solve this counter-IED problem,” Way said. “It’s been a great partnership working with (the Maneuver Battle Lab) because they can rapidly help us get an assessment here with troops who have deployment experience. That’s a serious risk mitigator for us in delivering a product that has the right amount of performance.”