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U.S military to field-test “throwable” robots in Afghanistan

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October 4, 2011

A Soldier throws a Recon Robotics Recon Scout Throwbot XT robot

A Soldier throws a Recon Robotics Recon Scout Throwbot XT robot

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Robots are a perfect tool to give soldiers in the field "eyes" on a potentially hazardous situation without placing themselves in harm's way. With soldiers often operating in difficult terrain or entering buildings, the easiest way to get such robots into place is usually to throw them. Currently, many units use a small tactical robot called the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle 320 which is equipped with video reconnaissance technology. However, this robot weighs a not very pack-friendly 32 pounds (14.5 kg), so the call has been put out for a lighter robot that is more easily transportable by dismounted units on the move and is able to be thrown into forward locations such as buildings and caves. To this end, the U.S. military is set to put three different types of lightweight, "throwable" robots through a series of combat assessments in Afghanistan.

In response to a joint urgent operational needs statement (JUONS) calling for an ultra-light recon robot to support dismounted operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEIDDO) are working to procure and deliver thousands of small, easily transportable "throwable" robots. These robots are to be equipped with surveillance cameras designed to beam back video from confined spaces, buildings, tunnels and other potentially dangerous locations.

After conducting a survey of commercially-available technologies and performing quick tests on numerous small robots, JIEDDO chose three lightweight, throwable robots for a series of combat assessments in Afghanistan: iRobot's 110 First Look robot, MacroUSA's Armadillo V2 Micro Unmanned Ground Vehicle, and QinetiQ North America's Dragon Runner.

iRobot 110 First Look robot

iRobot 110 First Look robot

Described as ideal for a range of infantry missions and special operation, including building clearing, raids and other close-in scenarios, First Look is designed to provide persistent observation and investigation of confined spaces. It weighs five pounds (2.3 kg) and is 10 inches (25 cm) long, 9 inches (23 cm) wide and 4 inches (10 cm) tall, meaning it is small enough to be stored in a soldier's standard load-out. The throwable robot is also built to survive 15-foot (4.6 m) drops onto concrete and is waterproof to 3 feet (0.9 m).

Once on the ground it can right itself when flipped over, climb steps up to 8 inches (20 cm) high, overcome curbs and other obstacles, turn in place and travel at speeds of up to 3.4 mph (5.5 km/h). On a typical mission it will get six hours of runtime, extending up to 10 hours when performing stationary video monitoring. It has four built-in cameras facing different directions and also features infrared illumination for low light and no light operations. First Look is configured like a miniature model of iRobot's PackBot robot and has a sensor payload including cameras, thermal imagers and chem-bio radiation sensors.

QinetiQ Dragon Runner

QinetiQ Dragon Runner

Originally developed for the U.S. Marine Corps, the basic model Dragon Runner is a little heavier and bigger than the First Look, weighing in at 14 pounds (6.4 kg) and measuring 12.2 inches (31 cm) by 16.6 inches (42 cm) by 6 inches (15 cm), but is still small and light enough to be carried in a standard-issue pack. It features a modular design that allows it to be fitted out with whatever combination of treads, cameras, sensors and/or arms best suit the mission at hand.

Able to move at up to 5 mph (8 km/h), the Dragon Runner can lift from five to ten pounds (2.3 - 4.5 kg) with its optional manipulator arm that features a rotating shoulder, wrist and grippers. Other options include day/night camera, pan/tilt/zoom cameras, motion detectors and a listening capability.

MacroUSA's Armadillo V2 Micro Unmanned Ground Vehicle

MacroUSA's Armadillo V2 Micro Unmanned Ground Vehicle

Measuring 11 inches (28 cm) long, 10.4 inches (26 cm) wide) and 5.1 inches (13 cm) and weighing 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg), the Armadillo is similar in size and weight to the First Look robot. As such it is man-packable and throwable. It is built to withstand multiple 8.2 foot (2.5 m) drops onto concrete or 26-foot (8 m) horizontal throws and will run for 1.5 to 2 hours in full operating condition or up to 12 hours in standby mode.

The Armadillo comes with two front, one rear and two side color day/night cameras to provide a 360-degree field of view. Capable of carrying a 6.6 pound (3 kg) payload, the robot can also be fitted with an optional turret with thermal camera that rotates 180-degrees. The robot has three speed modes: Creep, Normal and Escape, in which it can reach speeds of up to 3.1 mph (5 km/h). It also has the ability to climb 45-degree slopes - depending on the surface material - and can be fitted with an optional climbing kit to tackle stairs.

Robots on the march

With combatant commanders in Afghanistan looking to receive an initial delivery of about 4,000 of the small robots, about 50 of each of these robots will be placed with various units, including infantry, engineering and explosive ordnance disposal units, to see how the robots perform across different types of combat terrain in different parts of Afghanistan.

"What we are going to try to do is give a sampling of every type of system down range across different regions of Afghanistan. More than likely there will be more than one system needed to answer this JUONS (Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement)," said Mathew Way, program integrator for Mitigate and Neutralize, JIEDDO.

The trial of the three robots in Afghanistan, called an "OCONUS" trial, (Outside the Continental United States), will let soldiers provide feedback about what is required.

"This will allow us to go to industry and tell them what we want. JIEDDO can then use those precise requirements to support a rapid, open competition, to then field the final solution or solutions to fulfill the warfighter need," Way said.

In addition to the OCONUS trial, the Army-led Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RS JPO) is working on developing, purchasing and deploying several of the small "throwable" robots, such as the aforementioned First Look and the Recon Scout XT Throwbot. The Throwbot, which is currently being acquired by the Army's Rapid Equipping Forces (REF), differs from the design of the three robots selected by JIEIDDO. It features a barbell-shaped design, with wheels at each end of a titanium tube that houses a camera with a 30-degree field of view, illuminator and antenna.

Recon Scout XT Throwbot

Measuring just 7.4 inches (18.7 cm) long, with a wheel diameter of 3 inches (7.6 cm) and weighing 1.2 pounds (544 g), the Throwbot is built to withstand vertical drops of up to 30 ft (9.1 m) and horizontal throws of 120 ft (31.4 m).

"The Recon Robot XT responds to the Soldiers' need to see where they're going before they get there. With this throwbot capability, warfighters gain situational awareness of an area, thus mitigating risks and casualties," an REF spokesperson said.

Source: U.S Army

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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5 Comments

I hope they put in a bit of high explosive in these. Drive that sucker right under someone and POW.

BigDaddyO
5th October, 2011 @ 05:39 am PDT

It needs a good microphone & speaker, especially the microphone.

Slowburn
5th October, 2011 @ 06:14 am PDT

Something like a fishing rod with a camera on the end, that has a 360-degree field of view, the cameras optic that Google use on top of their map cars in a smaller design would do. Link this wireless on to their helmets so the team can all see the same picture, better chance of catching a target. An improvement would be some way to control the movement on the end of the rod; you could work it from downstairs to check the top of the stairs before you send a lad up. Also, use it for locking around corners, over roofs and into drains. It is cheap, faster than a robot to deploy, and portable if it was a telescopic rod.

Gerard58
5th October, 2011 @ 04:50 pm PDT

Looks like just another super expensive war toy. Chalk another one up for the weapons manufacturers succeeding in bilking taxpayers/Pentagon/Fed out of a few more million. What is the exact cost per unit anyways?

Haven't these already been shown to be disabled by fairly simple methods? Example - children with paint spray cans or paintball guns?

How do the soldiers/family survivors now feel when they get maimed/killed for life when a robot could have been sent in?

How fast after one is captured, can they be shipped to China and disassembled for super cheap duplication, for sale to our enemies, or the highest bidding terrorist group?

electric38
6th October, 2011 @ 11:59 pm PDT

I really like Gerard58s idea for a extendable fishing rod with tiny camera lens at tip. All the electronics except the peanut-sized camera lens could be housed in the base along with small lcd screen like in cell phones. This design is so simple that even I could build one and just might! Besides the obvious saving of lives when searching for enemies lying in wait, it could be used for inspecting under and inside vehicles at check points. It could be used as periscope, staying under cover while finding source of incoming fire. Finally, a domestic version could have lots of uses as well. I am a older gentleman who is partially disabled. A few of the of uses I can think of right now include seeing on top shelves, inspecting gutters on house, take it with you to the store and see products close up without the need to leave electric wheelchair. Bomb squad could use it to inspect a suspect device while hiding behind blast shield. Swat teams could use them to see into 2nd story windows or in crawl spaces and around corners. For hunters, see game without moving in your blind or from behind cover and use it instead of climbing a tree for a better look around to gain bearings! Waterproof it and peek under water to see if that big fish is lurking in the pool! Kids could play with something like that all day, peeking down holes instead of reaching in with hand! Peeping Toms could use it to...OK, let's just not go there! I know there already exists devices for some of these uses but I bet they are a bunch more expensive! I'm sure others could think of lots more constructive uses, both military and domestic!

Will, the tink
12th October, 2011 @ 10:22 pm PDT
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