Science Fiction Becomes Science Reality
Contributed by Kathy Gatens
The Tactical Mobile Robot
Who dreams up James Bond’s toys? Who designs the tiny gun hidden in the belt buckle and the explosive disguised as a pen that Q so assiduously describes before each new adventure? Is there a laboratory tucked away where white-coated bespectacled scientists craft new weapons to fight the ever-threatening Spectre?
007 and his gadgets may be a creation of Ian Fleming and Hollywood but those imaginative fellows do exist. A few of them work in INEEL’s National Security Division. And there is a government organization that sponsors some of their projects - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for DoD. Its Web site states that it "pursues research and technology where risk and payoff are both very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions."
The agency issues a request for cool ideas in a specific area, and then funds selected proposals. Some pay off, some don’t. But the ones that do, pay off big.
National Security’s Special Programs conducts DARPA-sponsored research and projects among others. One such project is the Tactical Mobile Robot program and one advanced robot created under this program is called Packbot.
Tough little robot
Packbot is a tough little robot developed by iRobot of Somerville, MA, for DARPA. Small in size, but durable and versatile, Packbot was designed to venture into areas too dangerous for people. The value of robots in real-world situations was recently demonstrated when - after the collapse of the World Trade Centers - Drew Bennent of iRobot helped deploy Packbots supporting search and rescue operations. Packbots went where it was just too dangerous for the human crews.
"We want to prove the technology is capable of being transitioned to full development and is robust enough for military or police operations," says Mike Occhionero, team leader for the Tactical Mobile Robot Project.
National Security engineers are designing novel tools for the next generation of the robot. Mike Occhionero leads a team that is developing several ’platforms’ and enhancements for the robot to help ensure its survivability. R&D engineers Henry Chu, Ted Reed and David Crandall, and the INEEL Special Response Team, led by Vic Lambson, join National Security team members of Occhionero and Julio Rodriguez. The INEEL has a history of combining its research and operations arms to ensure program success and Rodriguez has been instrumental in coordinating the diverse collaborations.
"TMR (Tactical Mobile Robot) is not yet a mature technology," explains Occhionero. "There are many potential uses and payloads we are looking to demonstrate. We want to prove the technology is capable of being transitioned to full development and is robust enough for military or police operations."
Occhionero is the right person to lead this INEEL effort. With his military background - he was a pilot - coupled with test and evaluation experience from the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake and systems engineering knowledge from the INEEL, Occhionero understands military engineering projects. He was able to show DARPA that the INEEL possessed unique capabilities that enhanced the robot’s performance.
He recognized that the eventual users had to be convinced the robot could perform some aspects of a mission and survive when facing an enemy and be convinced of the need to protect the advanced technologies from compromise should the robot be captured. These were specialized niches that didn’t exist prior to the INEEL’s involvement.
"We had to listen a lot," says Occhionero speaking of hosting TMR’s Quarterly Interim Planning Review held this past year in Idaho Falls. During the meeting, over 80 researchers evaluated TMR past program performance, and plotted its future. "We had to find out what the program manager wanted, what other performers were not able or willing to supply and that would become the niche for the INEEL to supply."
Robot platforms and enhancements
An example is the INEEL armor expertise. From manufacturing armor for the Army’s Abrams tanks to developing lightweight armor composites for personnel and vehicle protection, the INEEL knows armor and military armor.
"Getting to work with Henry has been an enlightening experience. He has given me a crash course in armor materials and mechanics that allows us to collaborate on several innovative lightweight armor concepts. TMR is supporting research to manufacture several test articles."
But Occhionero’s and Chu’s unique approach is not to make a little tank out of Packbot, that would increase its weight and decrease its maneuverability.
"You don’t have a choice with a person. You have to protect vulnerable areas. You have to cover them," says Occhionero. "It’s different with a robot. We can move things around on the inside." He is talking to Packbot developer iRobot about remaking key components from armor material. The team is developing a concept to "compartmentalize" internal components. The final solution will be a systematic solution combining material, design, and packaging.
The team is also developing a lethal payload. It is equipping the Packbot with a Fabrique National M-249 machine gun and demonstrating its ability to engage targets and to fire remotely.
Another "enhancement" being developed is a self-destruct capability, which may be a better alternative than having the robot fall into enemy hands.
Right now the robot is equipped with a video camera and the operator can "see" on a computer screen what the robot sees. Occhionero is working with the INEEL special response team to explore its existing capabilities. They are developing scenarios where Packbot could gather intelligence, create a diversion or act as a force multiplier. The INEEL - with its reactor, laboratories, and storage facilities set amidst 890 square miles - is the perfect test site offering actual operating conditions. Development and implementation of tactical scenarios wouldn’t be possible without these factors coupled with the security expertise.
Julio Rodriguez manipulates the Packbot's joystick control while monitoring the result on a laptop computer.
Still, with all of these applications on the drawing board, Occhionero and Rodriguez see missing pieces. They would like to work on the communications, command-and-control and the use of multiple robots to perform part or all of a mission
The demonstration robot communicates via wireless Ethernet and the program cannot address communication issues of a fielded system.
They’d also like to work on a command-and-control system that’s intuitive; easy for someone to use. Occhionero sees training as a major key to future implementation. Identifying just what skills are needed for a military robotic operator, a combination of technical and tactical or as he describes them "part SWAT team, part computer geek."
DARPA says its mission is to develop imaginative, innovative and often high-risk research ideas that go well beyond the normal evolutionary developmental approaches. National Security’s Special Programs is helping. Q would have been proud.