Infantry: Seeking A Droid That Does It All And Does It Well


September 10, 2009: The U.S. Army is buying another 486 PackBot 510/FasTac remotely controlled robots. Weighing 53 pounds, and 16 inches (406mm) wide, 27 inches (686mm) long and 16 inches high, it has one flexible arm with the camera on it, and another flexible arm with a gripper hand. Top speed is 9 kilometers an hour, and they cost $73,000 each. This PackBot can run four hours (over 25 kilometers of travel) on one battery charge. The gripper arm can extend up to 42 inches (106.7cm) and lift up to five pounds.

The PackBot is controlled via software and communications on a laptop. Range of radio control is 1,000 meters. The PackBot is waterproof. Operators usually employ a ruggedized, 14 pound laptop for control. The PackBot has zoom on the camera, and the camera arm has infrared (invisible to enemy unless they are wearing special glasses) and LED spotlights.

Earlier this year, the army cancelled orders for thousands of PackBot and Talon combat robots. With the plunge in roadside bomb activity in Iraq, and the weak efforts of the Taliban in Afghanistan to use those devices, there is a sharp drop in need for these small robots services. But as the Taliban used more roadside bombs in Afghanistan, there was more demand for additional PackBots. The PackBot 510/FasTac model was introduced early last year.

Currently, the Department of Defense owns about 6,000 small robots. Most of them are in the army, and a little over half are in a combat zone. There would be a lot more of these small robots out there if they were a bit smaller and had better sensors. Because of this, efforts to have the infantry regularly use the small robots in combat have not been successful. The older 42 pound Packbot and hundred pound Talon were fine for dealing with roadside bombs, but too big and heavy to easily haul around the battlefield. But most troops admitted that if the small droids were a bit smaller and lighter, and had better ability to sense what was around ("situational awareness") them, they would be more welcome.

All this led to the next generation infantry droid, the SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle). This is a 30 pound robot, similar to the slightly larger Packbot. SUGV can carry 6.5 pounds of gear, and seven different "mission packages" are available. These include various types of sensors and double jointed arms (for grabbing things.) SUGV is waterproof and shock resistant. It fits into the standard army backpack, and is meant to operate in a harsh environment. The battery powered SUGV is operated wirelessly, or via a fiber optic cable, using a controller that looks like a video game controller with a video screen built in. Like the current PackBot, SUGV can climb stairs, maneuver over rubble and other nasty terrain.  

The SUGV design is based largely on feedback from combat troops. For example, it is rugged enough to be quickly thrown into a room, or cave, activated and begin sending video, as well as audio, of what is in there. This feature makes it very popular with the troops, who still want droids with the ability to see, hear and smell were more acutely. No one likes being the first one going into dark, potentially dangerous, places. Throwing a grenade in first doesn't always work, because sometimes frightened civilians are in there. But the current generation of robots are not fast enough, agile enough or sensitive enough to compete with human troops doing this kind of work.

SUGV can also perform outpost and listening post work. These are two dangerous jobs the infantry are glad to hand off to a robot. Outposts are, as the name implies, one or two troops dug in a hundred meters or so in front of the main position, to give early warning of an enemy attack. A listening post is similar, but the friendly troops are often much deeper into enemy territory. The SUGV battery enables it to just sit in one place, listening and watching, for eight hour or more. After that, you send out another SUGV with a fresh battery, and have the other one come back for a recharge. No risk of troops getting shot at while doing the same things, and the troops really appreciate that. Again, the problem with this is that the robot sensors are just not there yet. Getting close, but not close enough for troops to trust their lives to this thing.

Other dangerous jobs for the SUGV are placing explosives by a door (to blow it open for the troops), or placing a smoke grenade where it will prevent the enemy from seeing the troops move. These situations don’t come up often enough, and the robot is rarely ready to go quickly enough to make it all practical.

In the last five years, users of current PackBot UGVs have filled military message boards with interesting uses they have found for these robots, and new features they could make use of. SUGV is the product of all that chatter. But of the several dozen delivered for field testing, the impression is that this droid is closer to what the troops need, but not there yet. The PackBot 510/FasTac is basically a heavier, and working, version of the lighter, and still in development, SUGV.

Before September 11, 2001, the army didn't expect to have robots like PackBot or SUGV until 2013. But the technology was already there, and the war created a major demand. The robots expected in 2013 were to be part of a new generation of gear called FCS (Future Combat Systems). SUGV is still waiting for some of the high tech FCS communications and sensor equipment, and is using off-the-shelf stuff in the meantime. The troops don't care, as long as it works.

Tens of thousands of troops have combat experience with PackBot and Talon, at least in bomb disposal work. A small number of troops have used the small robots for security jobs, and an even smaller group for combat work. The smaller and more compact SUGV shows how quickly new generations of these droids can be turned out. But it will be another 5-10 years before several new generations of droids, and more powerful sensors and software, can be developed, delivered and evaluated by the troops. The droids will never have the same senses (sight, hearing, smell, vibrations) that humans do, but they are acquiring similar senses that are useful enough. These are becoming more powerful, and a new generation of data analysis software makes it possible for near-future droids to quickly interpret what they "sense" and let their operator know, quickly, that there is something out there, and approximately where it is. Within the next few years, there will be a droid that will turn its sensors (camera/thermal sensor) around to give the operator a better look at what it "heard" or "felt". Smell will take a little longer, but it's on the way. By then, the droids will also be able to operate on their own a lot, and respond to voice commands. In ten years, there will be small droids that you won't be able to sneak up on. That's the sort of bot the troops want to go into action with. And at that point, infantry units will have them as part of their basic equipment.