By Matt Goodman
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – They may cost millions to make, but when a robot deployed on the battlefield returns in pieces, it's hard for Lt. Col. Chip Daniels not to crack a smile.
"That means we just saved a soldier's life," he said.
About three months ago, Daniels, along with Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, III Corps and Fort Hood commander, and the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research Development Center, invited 19 companies to simulate new technologies that could be deployed in the near-future in the first-ever Robotics Rodeo.
For Lynch, it's a personal quest to reduce lives lost on the battlefield. Though Lynch was not at the press conference Thursday, Daniels said that at least half of the 153 soldier deaths that occurred during Lynch's command in Iraq could have been avoided had the technology displayed at the event been employed in combat.
"Who would you rather take that first round," Daniels asked, "the manned system or an unmanned?"
It wasn't difficult to spot the direction new military technology is headed. Autonomy, in this case referring to a machine that can operate with minimal or no human guidance, was stressed in most of Daniels' comments and present in much of what companies displayed Thursday.
Whether it was Think-A-Move Ltd.'s small robotic devices that cruised and surveyed terrain driven by vocal cues or Lockheed Martin's vehicle that drives itself, the goal was clear: Put robots in the dangerous situations, not soldiers.
"We're trying to demonstrate technology today that can save soldiers' lives tomorrow," Daniels said.
In April, III Corps and the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research Development Center "put pen to paper" and developed categories geared to replace troops with robots on the battlefield. The first was route clearance, where robots would scout a route beforehand to discover any dangers in the road ahead, such as Think-A-Move's robot.
Another was the logistics convoy – vehicles that are operational partially or fully unmanned, such as offerings from Lockheed Martin and Oshkosh Corp.
"We get reactions from the soldiers that our product is simple and effective," said Will Shores, director of program development at Lockheed Martin. "They get in, the green light comes on, they push one button, and it's going."
Persistent stare or long-term surveillance came next, which is an autonomous robot or surveillance system built to observe a spot and compare any differences when the troops cross that area again, making it easier to spot threats.
Oshkosh Corp. also had a product with this capability. The machine is planted on top of a vehicle and provides real-time visual comparisons from past terrain changes to what was in the area now.
"It's amazing what the human brain can do," said John Beck, chief engineer of unmanned systems with Oshkosh. "This device allows the human operator to detect changes in the immediate environment."
The following category – and Daniels admitted that this will be the most difficult to develop – was the robotic wing man. The idea is as frightening as it is exciting, an autonomous robot with firepower that follows the soldier into standoff combat. But Daniels was quick to admit that a draft of this technology could take up to 10 years to design.
"But that's just my gut," he said.
The Robotics Rodeo was not a competition among companies. Instead, each took to the field, showcasing the new technologies in an environment that let onlookers catch a glimpse of robots that could soon be deployed.
Lynch and Gen. Ann Dunwoody, commander of the U.S. Army Materiel Command who was visiting Fort Hood Thursday, boarded Oshkosh's fully autonomous vehicle, TerraMAX, during its exhibition.
"They seemed impressed," Beck said. "But that's just from me."
On Tuesday and Wednesday, soldiers from III Corps used the machines and provided feedback. Spc. Marco Domingo of Bandit Troop, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, made the rounds and provided feedback to the companies but said the allotted hour with each wasn't enough to get a feel for what was being presented.
Domingo said he had already spent a week working with a company's product before the Robotics Rodeo – he declined to say which company – and provided feedback. The company was present at the event, and Domingo said they applied the tips that he and his troop provided.
"If it takes a person out of the fight, then it's always a plus," he said.
To Daniels, the event was a success. Companies large and small converged at Fort Hood to display new capabilities that can save soldiers' lives in the future.
But the potential employment of these technologies is uncertain because the Army has been historically behind the curve when using robots on the battlefield, Daniels said.
Lynch graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1985 and went to Fort Knox to work on ground robotics. Daniels said that Lynch is still hearing the same conversations in recent years that he heard 25 years ago, and they're beginning to wear on him.
Daniels said Army technology follows Moore's Law: By the time the robots are deployed, new technologies are available and what is in use is already outdated.
"The industry is responding today," Daniels said. "We've got to fix the problem of technology outdating itself because the Army isn't moving fast enough."
While some companies present Thursday have contracts with the military to develop their machines, very few, if any, have a contract that includes deployment. With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Army could be in a position to be funneling more cash to companies to get their operational autonomous robots in action soon.
Daniels estimates route clearance robots and logistics convoy machines could be 80 to 85 percent complete and ready to deploy in about a year. But getting the government to approve the contracts to put the designs into production and deploy overseas could be an uphill battle.
"We are going to do everything we can to influence that decision," Daniels said. "That's why those points were created."
Contact Matt Goodman at email@example.com or (254) 501-7550.