FCS robot gets ready for battlefield

The Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV), a 20-pound, foldable, remotecontrolled robot from Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot, is on track to be one of the first efforts from the Defense Department’s Future Combat Systems project to bear fruit. The Army received 25 prototype SUGVs in May, said Bob Bell, executive director of FCS programs at iRobot.

The SUGV’s immediate predecessor, iRobot’s PackBot, has already seen wide deployment in the field. It was designed to get itself — rather than its operators — blown up while disposing of improvised explosive devices or other ordnance. More than 1,500 PackBots have been delivered to the Army by iRobot.

The SUGVs, the FCS component for which iRobot is responsible, will gradually supplant the 42-pound PackBots. SUGVs are equipped with a camera that zooms to give the operator a closer look at targets, and they have passive and active infrared for night vision. Earlier versions of SUGVs weighed 30 pounds, but the newest are down to about 20 pounds, Bell said.

Its delivery schedule was accelerated in April, when the Army and Boeing – the lead systems integrator on the FCS project — asked for 25 units to be delivered for a multisystem FCS test at Fort Bliss, Texas, in May.

Bell said the new robot will extend soldiers’ capabilities in the field with its ability to climb stairs and descend into caves and other cramped spaces. The robot also has improved tools that let it more effectively open doors, defuse bombs and enter dangerous places, he added.

However, no matter how effective robots are at extending the eyes and ears of troops, they aren’t good enough at extending their hands, feet or weapons to fulfill the high expectations that FCS fans have for them, said Philip Coyle, a former assistant secretary of Defense and a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan policy research organization.

“In terms of being able to create a robot that’s amazing to watch, I think they’re doing fine,” Coyle said about iRobot and the FCS vendors that make other unmanned ground vehicles. “Can you send a robot into a house and have it send you a picture of what’s inside? Yes, you can. But while you’re doing that, you’re kind of vulnerable yourself anyway, outside, where the bad guys can see you and probably target you.”

Armored vehicles dragging chains are more effective at tripping mines or IEDs. In addition ground troops are better at remembering changes in a streetscape that could indicate booby traps or other threats, and they can respond more quickly than a remotecontrolled robot can, Coyle said.

“They’re finding out over there that with IEDs, it’s much more important to go after the logistics chain than identify every threat,” Coyle said.

But the Army sees some promise in robots. The April contract accelerating development of SUGVs added $6 million to iRobot’s FCS contract with the Army, raising the total to $60 million. The Army also placed another $22 million worth of orders for existing variants of the PackBot under contracts that could eventually reach $338 million.

In September 2007, the Army also placed a five-year, $280 million order with rival Robotic FX to manufacture robots to detect and identify IEDs. The initial order was for 101 units, but could reach 3,000 by the end of the contract.

iRobot has also expanded its repertoire to include larger, heavier robots that can carry more cargo and offer more capabilities, including the ability to carry and use weapons, Bell said. “But right now, the Army is just focused on the SUGV.”

“We have a robot that can go more places — extreme terrain and puddles and sewers — and has a longer mission [capability] than before,” Bell said of the SUGV. “It uses standard Army inventory batteries, not special batteries; it has as low a logistics footprint as possible for the soldiers. It has a controller that’s a lot like a game controller, so the learning curve is fast, and it has a 600x800 display you can wear and see what the robot sees but still see through or around it to maintain situational awareness.”

“The soldiers who tested it told us they loved it,” Bell said.

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