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Small Mobile Robot

The creation of the Robotic Systems Pool was intended to facilitate linking a user up with an appropriate COTS solution, by procuring in advance a reasonable selection of hardware deemed most appropriate for subsequent evaluation. The immediate focus in FY02 was on the basic COTS platforms, while the out-year focus will shift more towards various application payloads that will increase the range of functionality for a better value.

By making this pool of hardware easily accessible on a loan-type basis, prospective users are spared the procurement costs and delays that previously represented a significant hurdle to timely fielding of effective and reliable hardware.

In addition to the manufacturer's advertised performance specs, prospective government users will have immediate access to "real-world" user feedback and experiences to assist them in making the most appropriate selection. The intent is to run at least one version of each different type of platform through a series of standardized performance evaluations at existing robotic test facilities, such as that operated by SouthWest Research Institute (SWRI) in El Paso, TX. As the pool assets are then made available to qualified organizations for evaluation, demonstrations, experiments, and training within each unique operational domain, the resultant application-specific performance feedback is also collected and made available to other prospective government users.

The hope is that these trial periods will provide valuable insights for both the users and the robotic developers alike. The users will benefit by discovering if, when, how, and where the robots are useful to their operations. This information may help to further define their requirements, modify operational practices to take advantage of evolving technologies, and make more appropriate acquisitions. SSC-SD will assist the borrowing agencies at no cost in articulating their requirements as well as providing engineering field support, maintenance, and training if necessary.

Similarly, robotic developers will benefit from the users' feedback and recommendations, enabling them to improve their designs and better anticipate the emerging needs. SSC-SD will work with the various vendors and supporting technical communities to convey the user's concerns and desires, in order to increase the functionality of COTS systems in a spiral development process.

In FY02, SSC-SD ordered 16 robots from several different manufacturers, including iRobot, Inuktun, and Foster-Miller, with increased numbers and diversity of types expected to be available for loan in the coming year. The loan schedule of pool assets is subject to both availability of hardware and the urgency of the user's stated need. DoD, Homeland Security, and Emergency Response users will have first priority, with the final disposition being determined by a tri-service advisory board.

Packbot

While airborne robots, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, first gained notoriety in Operation Desert Storm, a treads-on-the-ground cousin, the "Packbot," debuted in Operation Iraqi Freedom. A robot was used to remotely look for enemy soldiers thought to be hiding in an agricultural center building on 30 March 2003. The following day it was used to remotely examine equipment left on an airfield before engineers from the 101st Airborne cleared the runway for humanitarian relief operations. In both operations, Packbot operators used the robot to verify there were, in fact, no enemy soldiers, in the building or booby traps or mines on the airfield where the enemy was believed to have conducted airfield denial operations. The robots are capable of maneuvering over and around obstacles. It is equipped with remote infrared and optical cameras that operators can use to closely examine caves, rooms or airfields while at a distance safely away from the effects of "surprises": booby traps, mines, weapons caches, or enemy soldiers. Operators use a wireless controller to maneuver the robot and control the camera. The view from the cameras is seen through a helmet-mounted eyepiece. The Packbot was first used in combat in July of 2002 to examine caves and a building complex in Nasarat, Afghanistan. The Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center developed the technology. The robot is maneuverable enough to climb stairs and continue even if it is flipped over. It is also equipped with an infrared light so it can maneuver and see in total darkness. Robots have been turned over to engineers in the division at the request of the 101st Division commander.

Omni-Directional Inspection System

A new robot that resembles an oversize bathroom scale on roller blade wheels can easily scurry under parked vehicles, making vehicle inspections safer and more through. Called the Omni-Directional Inspection System, the robot has a small camera that enables inspectors to see every angle of an undercarriage from the safety of a remote station. A series of tests demonstrated that the robot provides the best improvement to the traditional "mirror-on-a-stick" inspection method.

In addition to hand-held mirrors on sticks, conventional means of parking lot and garage surveillance include mounted video cameras, visual inspection and use of trained dogs. However, authorities want a safer alternative to sending humans or canines into a situation where a motion-sensitive bomb could detonate. While static surveillance cameras have been used for years, they lack the resolution and mobility needed for effective searches.

Vehicle security concern heightened when it was learned that associates of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists obtained licenses to transport hazardous materials. Recent news reports indicate that border inspection delays at the Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Mich., crossings are costing automobile plants millions when parts fail to show up in time and assembly lines stand idle. The robots are a tool to improve time consuming and dangerous manual under-vehicle inspections.

The robot has been demonstrated and well received at several recent military forums. Additional units are being produced in limited numbers and will be available for user testing in the near future. New robots will have the capability to integrate infrared and non-visual sensors, including radiological detectors and chemical analyzers.




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