Infantry: Droids That Can Pass The Smell Test


June 18, 2012: The U.S. Army recently ordered another 68 SUGV robots. This makes 206 of these combat robots in service or on order so far. It was only last year, after more than six years of development, that the army bought its first production model XM1216 SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle) robots. SUGV is the next generation infantry droid, replacing existing droids like PackBot. 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. These small robots have been quite rugged, having a 90 percent availability rate.

The overly ambitious, expensive, and much delayed FCS program was cancelled three years ago but successful bits, like SUGV, were allowed to keep moving. This was a big deal for SUGV because demand for these small droids collapsed when the Islamic terror offensive in Iraq did in 2008. There were plenty of droids left over for service in Afghanistan, where the Taliban provided a much lower workload for the little bots than did Iraq.

SUGV is a 13 kg (29 pound) robot, similar to the slightly larger Packbot. SUGV can carry 3 kg (6.6 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. SUGV can also use an XBox 360 controller, with the right drivers. Like the current PackBot, SUGV can climb stairs as well as 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 want droids with the ability to see, hear, and smell 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. Despite all these fine qualities, the current generation of robots is not fast enough, agile enough, or sensitive enough to compete with human troops doing this kind of work. Sometimes, however, the robots are an adequate, and life-saving, substitute. SUGV is supposed to be better at this sort of thing.

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 hours 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. The sensors are 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. In the last seven 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.

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 19 kg (42 pound) Packbots and 50 kg (110 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.

Tens of thousands of troops have combat experience with PackBot and Talon, at least in bomb disposal work. A growing number of troops have used the small robots for security jobs and 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. It's that hope that keeps projects like SUGV going.




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