In an exercise that was the first of its kind, five autonomous boats formed a defensive line between an intruder and the ship they were protecting.
Every day brings new headlines of the warfighting capabilities of drones patrolling the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and any number of places where strife continues.
While pilots operate the drones remotely from bases back in the U.S., there are a host of smaller robots that deserve a bit of attention as well. From scrubbing barnacles off aircraft carriers to spying on bad guys from the clouds, this new class of autonomous military robot could see action on or near the battlefield in the coming year.
Here, Lance Corporal Joe Henkel checks out the MARCbot iV, a remote-controlled robot used in IED investigations.
American Unmanned Systems
This spherical, 54-pound bot rolls across land, mud, rocks and water with a spy camera hidden inside its fiberglass shell. An internal pendulum keeps the two cameras stabilized as the shell rotates and provides motion.
Connecticut-based American Unmanned Systems initially designed Guardbot to rove across the Martian surface for a European Space Agency mission that was later scrubbed, so president Peter Muhlrad switched to military and commercial applications, mainly guard and reconnaissance duty. It was also deployed recently by a Mexican television network during a live soccer match at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium.
Guardbot is undergoing tests by the Marines in Quantico, Va., and Camp LeJeune, N.C., Muhlrad said. An aquarium in Florida is also interested in using Guardbot to interact with its dolphins.
World Surveillance Group Inc.
Argus One AUV
This 113-foot flexible airship drone "wiggles like a snake" when faced with strong winds, rather than being tossed around like a balloon, said Dan Erdberg, director of business development for World Surveillance Group Inc., based at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. That means it can hover in at 10,000 to 15,000 feet above a target with minimal effort.
The helium-filled composite material bags are covered with an outer layer of ripstop nylon. Argus One also has a stealthy, almost-zero radar footprint, making it nearly invisible while supporting a platform of high-resolution spy cameras or other remote-sensing devices, Erdberg said.
"This could dwell over an area for a long time, if it sees people you could send in one with arms," he said. "It's in the clouds and literally impossible to pick up."
Argus is undergoing tests at the Department of Energy's Nevada test facility in December (that's next door to the infamous Area 51).
As any boat owner knows, scraping barnacles is the bane of a sailor's existence. But for the Navy, "marine bio-fouling" of sea grasses, barnacle colonies and tube warms costs taxpayers an estimated $1 billion a year.
That's because ships coated with this biological material travel more slowly through the water, and so their engines burn more fuel. Sea Robotics "Hull Bug" crawls across the ship's hull cleaning bio-junk without using harsh copper- based chemicals that can damage the marine environment.
Sea Robotics President Don Darling says the device sticks to the hull using a special negative pressure device, and cleans with spinning rotor brushes.
Autonomous sensors look for bio-material without the need of an operator guiding it -- and Darling says it can clean an entire ship in a day while it's docked in port.
iRobot Warrior 710
This Bedford, Mass.-based maker of robotic vacuum cleaners, gutter routers and kids toys also supplies ground-based rovers to the military.
At configurations up to 500 pounds, the new Warrior 710 is significantly bigger and brawnier than previous models and can pick up a 220-pound object within six feet, according to Tim Trainer, vice president operations for iRobot's government and industrial robots division. The Warrior 710 climbs stairs and slopes up to a 45-degree angle, rolls over rocks and can carry 150 pounds.
It's designed for IED disposal and clearing buildings. This robot also has a delicate extendable hand that can move around corners, open a car door and remove a bomb on its own.
Engineers at Lockheed Martin's research lab took inspiration from maple seeds that whirl through the air as they drop.
The Samarai Flyer weighs less than half a pound and is 16 inches long -- ideal for stuffing in a backpack and launching by hand.
It can take off from the ground with its mini-spy camera or possibly an armament package. It's mechanically simple with only two moving parts, and was built using 3-D printing technology for its maiden public flight in August. Check out video here.
Bill Borgia, leader of Lockheed Martin's intelligent robotics laboratory, says the camera spins at the same rate as the body, but special stop-motion video software cancels out the rotation and allows the operator to get a steady stream of images.
"You could take this out of your backpack, throw it like a boomerang and see around a corner of a building or over outside a window and see if there are any bad guys inside," Borgia said.
The biggest engineering challenge is to boost the Samarai Flyer's endurance, according to Borgia. Hopefully next year it will hover for more than 30 minutes, he said.
A fleet of U.S. Navy boats approached an enemy vessel like sharks circling their prey. The scene might not seem so remarkable compared to any of the Navy's usual patrol activities, but in this case, part of an exercise conducted by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), the boats operated without any direct human control: they acted as a robot boat swarm.
The tests on Virginia's James River this past summer represented the first large-scale military demonstration of a swarm of autonomous boats designed to overwhelm enemies. This capability points to a future where the U.S. Navy and other militaries may deploy underwater, surface, and flying robotic vehicles to defend themselves or attack a hostile force.
"What's new about the James River test was having five USVs [unmanned surface vessels] operating together with no humans on board," said Robert Brizzolara, an ONR program manager.
In the test, five robot boats practiced an escort mission that involved protecting a main ship against possible attackers. To command the boats, the Navy use a system called the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS). The system not only steered the autonomous boats but also coordinated its actions with other vehicles -- a larger group of manned and remotely controlled vessels.
Brizzolara said the CARACaS system evolved from hardware and software originally used in NASA's Mars rover program starting 11 years ago. Each robot boat transmits its radar views to the others so the group shares the same situational awareness. They're also continually computing their own paths to navigate around obstacles and act in a cooperatively manner.
Navy researchers installed the system on regular 7-foot and 11-foot boats and put them through a series of exercises designed to test behaviors such as escort and swarming attack. The boats escorted a manned Navy ship before breaking off to encircle a vessel acting as a possible intruder. The five autonomous boats then formed a protective line between the intruder and the ship they were protecting.
Such robotic swarm technology could transform modern warfare for the U.S. Navy and the rest of the U.S. military by reducing the risk to human personnel. Smart robots and drones that don't require close supervision could also act as a "force multiplier" consisting of relatively cheap and disposable forces -- engaging more enemy targets and presenting more targets for enemies to worry about.
"Numbers may once again matter in warfare in a way they have not since World War II, when the U.S. and its allies overwhelmed the Axis powers through greater mass," wrote Paul Scharre, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a military research institution in Washington, D.C., in an upcoming report titled "Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm."
"Qualitative superiority will still be important, but may not be sufficient alone to guarantee victory," Scharre wrote. "Uninhabited systems in particular have the potential to bring mass back to the fight in a significant way by enabling the development of swarms of low-cost platforms."
The Navy does not have a firm timeline for when such robot swarms could become operational. For now, ONR researchers hope to improve the autonomous system in terms of its ability to "see" its surroundings using different sensing technologies. They also want to improve how the boats navigate autonomously around obstacles, even in the most unexpected situations that human programmers haven't envisioned. But the decision to have such robot boats open fire upon enemy targets will still rest with human sailors.
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