By Christen N. McCluney
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 11, 2009 - Two seemingly different U.S. Army organizations gathered robotics experts, technologists, academecs, soldiers and companies from across the country in search of solutions to help save soldiers' lives. The 3rd Corps and U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, based on Fort Hood, Texas, hosted the first Robotics Rodeo to showcase what's new in the world of automation.
"The number one goal is to save the lives of our soldiers," said Lt. Col. Barry "Chip" Daniels, 3rd Corps' robotics project officer said in a Sept. 9 interview on "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military" on Pentagon Web Radio.
The rodeo was intended to foster better communication between soldiers and robotics developers. In this forum, soldiers can offer information on what they actually need in theater, and developers can share what technology is available in the development stage, as opposed to the fielding stage, Daniels said.
More than 30 exhibitors were on hand to display the latest in autonomous robotics, a capability that allows robots to function without a user interface, which helps in areas with limited communications or when soldiers have other tasks to focus on.
"There are a lot of enabling technologies and we saw a lot of examples at the rodeo," said Jim Overholt, director of the Joint Center for Robotics at TARDEC. "Robots are still in their infancy. If we don't have the robots keeping up with the operational tempo of what the troops are used to, they will leave the robots behind."
Daniels advised thinking beyond common perceptions of what robots are capable of when thinking of how they might help the military.
"Often we fall victim to what Hollywood tells us a robot can do," he said. "If they [soldiers] know what the robot is capable of doing, they can see the utility in having it fielded."
Overholt said he is excited that technology developers who have been hearing the need for more mobile platforms, higher rates of speed and stability, are responding to the demand.
Soldiers' feedback is valuable in updating technology and helps with the development phase in all areas, from design of robots to the size of battery packs, he said.
TARDEC also has embedded engineers in Afghanistan and Iraq to see firsthand how soldiers would use the equipment and get insight from the field on how to design it.
Because many of today's soldiers grew up with gaming consoles, TARDEC designed many of the robots to be operated with joysticks.
"It's amazing, you give some of these soldiers robots that can be controlled from a game station or a simple controller and it's not a matter of reading manuals, they are operating that robot in a matter of minutes," Overholt said.
One of the main purposes of having the robots is to simplify capabilities so soldiers are not distracted from what is going on around them.
The robotic technology showcased at the rodeo was designed to help the military with four missions: route clearance, to allow robots to sweep areas instead of troops; logistic convoys, in which robots travel alone between different points; persistent stare, where the robots can observe an area with artificial intelligence alerts; and as future robotic wingmen to augment the current manned combat force, Daniels said.
"The learning that took place on both sides was wonderful to witness," Overholt said.
Daniels agreed that the collaboration between soldiers and robot developers must continue. "Until the systems are in the hands of the soldiers, we are not done," he said.
(Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)