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

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

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

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.

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