The U.S. Army's ability to "see first, shoot second" rolls on with UGVs - An interview with Robert Moses, President of iRobot's Government and Industrial Robots division
Editor’s note: With its DARPA-initiated PackBot robot making its debut in caves in Afghanistan in the 9/11/01 aftermath, iRobot’s Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) keep rolling while delivering the ability to see first, shoot second. These days, iRobot/U.S. Army contracts for the company’s 320 SUGV robots for BCTM [Brigade Combat Team Modernization], in addition to other U.S. Army orders, are also rolling in. But is it really possible to control the PackBot and 320 SUGV robots with only an off-the-shelf Best Buy variety Xbox controller? Yes indeed, as our interview with Robert Moses, President of iRobot’s Government and Industrial Robots division, reveals. Edited excerpts follow.
We received a press release saying that the U.S. Army is to purchase two more LRIP model 320 SUGV brigade sets from iRobot, and that iRobot is additionally developing the 320 SUGV follow-on variant of the same name for the Army’s BCTM [Brigade Combat Team Modernization] to be delivered next year. Tell us more.
MOSES: The SUGV is a Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle. It weighs about 30 lbs. It was developed under the former FCS [Future Combat Systems] program. We were one of the original 21 partners under that contract, which was awarded in 2004, with our responsibilities being design and development work. We are one of the few companies actually taking things from that program and supplying them to today’s Army.
We have finished Increment 1 of that program. Underneath the original FCS contract, iRobot was responsible for providing the chassis, and the controller and EO/IR [Electro Optical Infrared sensor] head were going to be developed by other vendors. The radio was going to be the JTRS radio. We’ve gone ahead and put a commercial controller and a commercial sensor suite with EO/IR on the robot – and that is what we are under contract for with the LRIP effort. It was important for us to get a system out to the Army, so we put a complete system solution together.
Your press release says iRobot and Boeing teamed to develop the SUGV. What is Boeing doing, please?
MOSES: Boeing is a prime contractor under the BCTM contract.
Relative to the Army’s plans to procure two additional LRIP brigade sets of model 320 SUGV, is model 320 the Increment 1 model?
MOSES: Yes, the Increment 1 model is the same robot as 320 SUGV. Increment 2 is called the XM1216 (experimental model 1216). At iRobot, we call it the 320 SUGV (Figure 1).
So is that the designation for the Increment 2 or the Increment 1 version?
MOSES: It is for both.
There is also a model called 310 SUGV, and we have a separate mini-EOD contract for that. That robot is riding on the same chassis [as 320 SUGV], but it has an arm on it and does not have the same sensor suite. We are selling this 310 SUGV to the military as well.
iRobot makes Roombas and many other sorts of consumer devices, but these SUGVs are obviously very serious devices. Which types of technology are involved?
MOSES: Going back to SUGV’s roots, you’ll find the PackBot product, which is a man-transportable robotic system. In all, we have delivered about 4,000 robots to the military and various customers around the world. Our largest customer is the U.S. government. We started this [PackBot] program in the 2002 timeframe. The main mission for PackBot is Explosive Ordinance Disposal [EOD] – to combat IEDs in theater. That product weighs about 65 pounds.
And you said earlier that SUGV weighs 30 lbs. What’s the difference in SUGV’s mission versus a PackBot?
MOSES: As I mentioned, the PackBot is primarily for EOD missions, and the 320 SUGV performs reconnaissance, building clearance, and other similar types of missions. Being able to send a robot in first to see what’s on the other side of the door is extremely important. And the ability to shoot second is very important. It’s all about what we call remote presence.
What were the origins of PackBot then?
MOSES: PackBot came out of a DARPA program and was first used on the battlefield after 9/11 when we were looking for the enemy in caves in Afghanistan. Before PackBot was being used, we were sending soldiers into caves with lights and a rope tied around their waists. The Rapid Equipping Force was evolving around that time. They said, “Hey listen, we’re going to take these robots in here.”
Later, in 2003, we sent one of our engineers to [Afghanistan], which was beneficial because we have a bunch of engineers designing robots who need to understand how the customer is going to use the robot. The colonel at that time said, “You know this is really a pretty sophisticated robot, but it’s kind of heavy.” And the engineers responded, “Sir, given there’s a computer inside, you have to have that mass to protect the computer.” The colonel responded, “That’s interesting, but it’s kind of heavy.” The engineers responded, “Sir, it also needs these flippers so it will be able to climb stairs.” So the colonel said, “Well that’s interesting, but it’s kind of heavy. Why don’t you go ahead and carry it up two flights of stairs today.” And then after doing so, someone said, “We have to get the weight down. This thing’s too heavy.” So having that interface with the customer and understanding that feedback we get from them is incredibly valuable.
How or by whom are the PackBots operated?
MOSES: These robots are tele-operated. We’re trying to take some of the workload off the soldier, so we’re also making our robots more autonomous. There are three things that we’re doing right now to increase autonomy. One is that if the robot tips over as you’re going down-range, the robot automatically self-rights itself. You don’t have to send somebody down there to do that.
Another thing is that if the robot’s going down-range and it loses communications – the robot will automatically stop and retro-traverse back to the place where it last had communications and will re-establish communications. And the last thing we’re doing is putting on a cruise control, if you will, to send it down a vector for several hundred yards so soldiers don’t actually have to drive it the whole way.
How is this autonomy engineered?
MOSES: With software: It’s because of a software package that we call Aware 2. The SUGV will eventually get that capability, and right now we have it available for the PackBot. The majority of our deployed units are PackBots. Of the 4,000 robots we have delivered, about 3,600 are PackBots and about 400 are SUGVs.
OK, so the guts of this radio, tell us about the computer that’s in it. What kind of embedded computer and system? Any open standards?
MOSES: For proprietary reasons, I [can’t provide] those specifics.
MOSES: It is Linux based, and we developed our own proprietary software to write on top of that.
How does this compare then to what the SUGV can do?
MOSES: With regard to SUGV, many missions are conducted at night, so you need the IR sensor and thermal imaging. And in Iraq, soldiers were driving to work. They’re performing road clearance missions, so they’re in the back of a Humvee. If they see something that looks suspicious, they stop and then they send the robot out. In Afghanistan, they’re walking to work – so SUGV is more suited for dismounted operations.
What does a PackBot cost, roughly? And what does the SUGV cost, roughly?
MOSES: The cost of a PackBot averages about $100,000, but it depends on the configuration. The 320 SUGV is more expensive than a PackBot because it’s early in the learning curve. Because of the cost of miniaturization and the more sophisticated sensor suite, it’s more expensive.
But the PackBot has an arm, which also has more mechanical parts in it, more moving things, and so on. So certainly more costs are associated with materials.
MOSES: Thermal cameras are expensive, too. The other thing we’re doing is making our robots easier to use. With the original military operators, it was thought that they were going to be using these robots with body armor gear and big gloves on. However, what’s happening now is they’re not wearing this gear when operating these robots. Originally, we had a large suitcase-type operator control unit with large pucks that were used to manipulate the robot. We investigated the best ways to operate these robots if they’re not using the gloves or getting dressed up in bomb suits. So we went to a laptop configuration and Xbox game-style controller with SUGV and PackBot.
Literally an Xbox controller?
MOSES: Yes. It’s one that you could pick up at Best Buy or any other store like that. The idea is to make it [as easy as possible]. The users are all young people who are gamers.
Who are familiar with video games at least.
MOSES: Yeah, they’ve got a thousand hours training on these controllers already. They’re very familiar with this. So that’s really decreased the training time significantly.
Tell us about any future plans that you can – for this program, for robots that iRobot is going to develop, or just any future technologies that are needed.
MOSES: The next robot that we’re working on right now is called FirstLook, which is a 5 lb robot with core sensors on it. It’s capable of being dropped from 15 feet, and it is a pure reconnaissance robot. I said the SUGV is made for dismounted operations – and it is. But, if you’re going to be out in the bush for a week, you’d probably like a lighter robot.
It’s less capable than SUGV or PackBot, but if you want something to do some reconnaissance work – you just throw it over the wall, and it can see what’s there, by itself. It has four cameras on it. It also has mesh networking capabilities so you can use it as a communications range extender for your robots if you want to. So, FirstLook is what we have going on for the small side. On the large side, we’ve got the Warrior product that will be out this year in the fourth quarter, and that is a 350 lb robot.
Does it have a lot more capability?
MOSES: Warrior is a lot heavier, a lot stronger. It can lift more. We sent two Warriors along with two PackBots over to Japan to help with the post-earthquake and tsunami efforts at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Warriors have been clearing debris there. Again it’s all about remote presence in dangerous environments.
Any technology that you wish for, to make a lot of what you do easier, better, cheaper, faster, whatever?
MOSES: Well, autonomy, manipulation, mobility … those are the three areas that we work on. We partner with others – we’re not going to build a battery or build a radio. We do work with others to get that type of capability. And also cameras – we’re not getting into that business.
So do you need better batteries, higher-bandwidth radios …?
MOSES: Well there’s always a demand for those, be it with robots, tanks, or aircraft. The big ones are weight, communications, and power.
How about pricing?
MOSES: The biggest way to drive down cost is through higher-quantity orders that you can count on and that allow you to get your supply chain going. That’s the main way to go.