Robots At Work- Part 5- Military
Ed. Note: Links to the four previous automation posts are listed at the bottom.
Tesla Autonomous Car
Something important happened on October 19th. No, not the contentious debate- but an automation announcement, one which might prove to be much more a historic milestone than a simple political event-
This week Elon Musk announced that his electric car firm, Tesla, has introduced a car which will drive itself across the country in 2017.
(To underscore just how difficult it is to create a fully autonomous car, silicon valley heavyweights Apple and Google each appear to have scaled back their self-drive programs). Making a robotic vehicle which is genuinely safe takes an incredible amount of situational awareness and processing power.
Musk shared the news that all Teslas, beginning this week, will ship with what Tesla calls Hardware 2. “The foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous, at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person,” he said. “But that safety factor will only improve as the system ages. “In the long term, we want to try to get to a 10x improvement, and so that will require ongoing refinement of the hardware…
… even a 2x safety improvement, spread across the board, would save hundreds of thousands of lives. “You’d go from 1.2 million deaths to 600,000 deaths,” he said. “Not to mention all the serious injuries, and other things that happen, that aren’t in the fatality statistics. So I think there’s still a lot of merit in trying to go from twice as safe, to ten times as safe. But I should be clear that every car Tesla produces, from here on out, will have the full autonomy hardware capabilities”
If automation can indeed save the lives of drivers- We thought it only fitting to outline how state of the art robotic technology can being used to support and protect those that serve our country. It’s been long predicted that robots would, one day, make their way into each of the armed services. We are closer to that day than you may think.
On the Sea- Naval Robotics
In April of this year, the Defense Department’s advanced research agency, DARPA, launched a remarkable new robotic water craft: The Sea Hunter. Designed for Anti Submarine Warfare, this autonomous craft can be dispatched either from a dock- or a ship based platform. Formally called the ACTUV, this prototype will prove out technologies to both ship track diesel submarines and carry a variety of payloads. Why an autonomous craft? Given the distance the craft will be from its operators…
“You really don’t want that to be a remote-controlled vessel…You want it to be fairly autonomous so that it can do things like obstacle avoidance on its own without being joysticked around by a person.”
Drone Air Power at Sea- The X-47B
The Navy has recently tested its rather stealthy-looking X-47B autonomous aircraft. The vehicle can launch from a carrier, refuel, and then land on its own. The two prototype planes were made by Northrop Grumman (a manufacturer of traditional piloted Naval aircraft such as the F-14 and the F-18). This program hasn’t been cheap, and has cost the Navy some $1.5 Billion over its eight year development period. For that investment however, the robot plane has demonstrated catapult launches and arrested landings on an aircraft carrier deck, a flight alongside manned aircraft, and mid-air refueling. Truly an amazing set of achievements. Specific types of ordinance and missions are yet to be determined.
MQ-25 Airborne Refueling
A more mundane, (but quite necessary!) function of support aircraft at sea is the vital process of mid-air refueling. Traditionally, this function has been performed a dedicated fuel tanker. More recently, this role is being played by modified F/A-18 fighters (and other non- tanker aircraft) each equipped with a a set of external fuel tanks. The problem with such an approach is that it renders those craft unavailable for the tasks they were originally designed. To meet this challenge, and restore the number of available fighters, an autonomous tanker is being developed.
Anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet sorties are for mission tanking and are placing unexpected stress on the airframes that have been in high demand in the last several years.
Versions of this sort of tanker and multipurpose drone are being developed under the Navy UCLASS program. In addition to Northrop’s X-47B described above, autonomous aircraft are being designed by Boeing, Lockheed and General Atomics.
Ground Warfare- Battlefield Support Robots and Vehicles
Boston Dynamics’ Spot and Atlas
A soldier’s mission is already quite difficult- and with each advance in wearable gear and weapons, comes more weight to carry on the battlefield. Enter the Atlas and Spot programs from Boston Dynamics:
To help in the load/unload and carry process- a humanoid robot called “Atlas” has also been created by the company. Atlas uses stereo vision and range finding LIDAR (laser radar) to determine the best manner in which to navigate its surroundings. It can pick up items, carry and place them- providing a vital logistics role.
Spot, an animal inspired robot from Boston Dynamics, can handle odd or rugged terrain. The attached video is worth a watch- as helper bot “Spot” does an incredible impression of a conventional, live household dog:
Ground assistance robots aren’t simply limited to human and dog-like forms. To demonstrate how fast a robot without wheels can travel off road, A team from MIT’s Biomemetic Robot Lab has created Cheetah, a device whose motion is similar to that of of an actual cat! It can run up to 28 miles per hour, and jump over random obstacles.
TUGV Gladiator Program
The Marine Corps’ Gladiator prototype can be easily transported to varied battle areas. It is designed to operated remotely just ahead of the marines in the field, in order to scout, breach obstacles etc, while keeping the soldiers out of any potential line of fire, or other battlefield dangers.
It also has a the ability to perform nuclear or biological reconnaissance. It can perform target acquisition, as well as having a direct fire capability. When reconfigured for cargo carrying, the Gladiator it can also be used to resupply troops in the field
Unmanned ground vehicle- RoBattle UGV
From Israel Aerospace comes the RoBattle unmanned ground support vehicle.
The combat ready RoBattle has a vehicle gross weight of seven tons, including three tons of payload. The diesel powered 6×6 articulated vehicle can also use tracks for improved all-terrain mobility. As a combat-ready platform, RoBattle is designed to survivability to endure battle damage, provided with protection and redundancy for sensitive areas.
The RoBattle can also be used for surveillance and to remotely control weapons.
Military Robots in 10 Years
We’ve outline just a few of the large variety of autonomous devices available to 21st century defense planners. It’s clear that, within a decade, troops will be positioned further from unexploded bombs- Airmen and Sailors will be assisted by autonomous refueling and scouting. Defense supply become more efficient- as the mundane, repetitive task of lift, carry, and transport will be handled by logistics robots of all shapes and sizes.
Robotic assist devices can be lifesavers, and will keep the focus where it belongs- returning military personnel home safely.
Parts 1-4 of the work automation series:
The Dark Side of Military Robots- Lethal Force
A bit of a post script here-
Many fear that deploying offensive robots in the military will create a dark future- one in which automated machines, rather than people will decide when and how to use lethal force. Although such a scenario may come to pass- Defense officials plan to keep humans fully engaged in autonomous battle decision-making