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 May 2009 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Robots are Major Players in U.S. Military Strategy

May 2009 

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret) 

The Defense Department is serious about robotics. The use of robots in warfare has long ceased to be a topic for science fiction and the technology has now become an essential component of the U.S. arsenal.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently gave unmanned vehicles a resounding endorsement. As he announced the slowdown or termination of several big-ticket programs, he also voiced his intent to strengthen the nation’s commitment to robotics technology. Gates proposed that more funds be allocated to field an additional 50 Predator class unmanned aerial vehicle orbits. He wants to increase the procurement of Predators by 62 percent over the current level. Even more significantly, he is shifting procurement of these systems to the baseline budget — away from supplemental funding. This solidifies the Pentagon’s long-term financial support for UAVs.

Gates also signaled he will back efforts to develop and deploy ground robots in greater numbers. The Army has a number of robots in the works under the Future Combat Systems program. Even though Secretary Gates intends to restructure the FCS, he will leave the sensors and robotics pieces in place — and these programs will most likely be expanded.

The excitement about the future of unmanned technology was evident at the recent NDIA robotics symposium in Dallas, Texas. The industry chairman of the event was retired Navy Vice Adm. Joe Dyer, vice president for government programs at iRobot. The Defense Department was represented by Tony Melita, from the office of the undersecretary of defense for land warfare and munitions, and Ellen Purdy, enterprise director for joint ground robotics.

The conference initially focused on ways to ensure and accelerate the adoption of new systems. More specifically, the objective was to understand what government and industry could do to speed up the deployment of more capable robotic technology. Geoffrey Moore, a respected author who specializes in business and technology, discussed the successful models, investment and management techniques that have proved successful in “crossing the chasm” from early adopters, to the early majority of those who become a critical mass of pragmatic practitioners. Once this latter group is on board, the technology is on its way to acceptance by the larger market. One could make the case that robotics is in its early adoption phase.

Soldiers who had successfully used robots in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan participated in a “robotics rodeo” — competing against each other to put four robots from four different manufacturers through a timed course. This was not only exciting but educational for those who have not seen robots performing combat maneuvers and tasks. This was a real highlight of the conference. Click here to view a video of the robotics rodeo that took place at this symposium.

Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, commanding general of the Army’s III Corps, said the top applications for robots in combat are route clearance, convoys, persistent stare and robotic wingman. His emphasis is to move technologies to soldiers quickly. “Tell us what you can do today,” Lynch said. The message was echoed by Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, deputy commanding general of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.  Rebecca Johnson, deputy commanding general of the Army Maneuver Support Center at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., said robots are useful for chemical detection and destruction; mine clearing, military police applications and intelligence. She stressed the need to advance the state of the art in autonomous operations — going beyond tele-operation to collaboration: robots to robots and robots to humans.

An innovation panel chaired by Tony Tether, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, explored the outer edges of the technological possibilities for robots.  

Another conference highlight was the “Unmanned Systems Roadmap” presented by Ellen Purdy.

The roadmap extends 25 years out and outlines ambitious goals — for example moving from multiple operators for one system to one operator for multiple systems. Another objective of the roadmap is to encourage robotics development that removes people from the most dangerous missions.

One of the most encouraging segments of Purdy’s presentation was the announcement and discussion of the Defense Department’s intention to release a “request for information” to industry announcing a Robotics Prize Competition. This contest follows along the lines of DARPA’s Grand Challenge. It focuses on the development of specific capabilities such as route clearance, roadside vegetation clearance, range clearance and humanitarian demining.

The program has been authorized and cash prizes will be offered.  

These developments, as well as the current successful employment of robots in combat, are carving out a large space in the Defense Department’s plans for the use of robotic capabilities.

Robots are becoming big business, and getting bigger, especially as technologies mature. It’s important to note that robots are a piece of a larger technology package that will characterize future capabilities. Robots, sensors and networks, all increasingly autonomous, will feed information and support war fighters with less human intervention.

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