Robotics have been a staple of advanced manufacturing for over half a century. As robots and their peripheral equipment become more sophisticated, reliable and miniaturized, these systems are increasingly being utilized for military and law enforcement purposes. Mobile security robot on the prowl for trespassers, courtesy Adept Technology Inc.
Robots go to War
Mobile robotics play an increasingly important role in military matters, from patrol to dealing with potential explosives. With suitable sensors and cameras to perform different missions, mobile robots are operated remotely for reconnaissance patrol and relay back video images to an operator, says Dr. Andrew Goldenberg, PhD, Chief Executive Officer and President of Engineering Services Inc. (ESI, Toronto Ontario, Canada). Robots can neutralize suspicious objects that may explode. The platform has a robot arm to pick up explosives or suspected hazards in military or civilian settings.
The platform moves on wheels or tracks, or both, and is usually battery-powered. Communication equipment and sensors can detect images, sounds, gases and other hazards. The communication systems read sensors and relay that information to the operator.
Robotics help meet challenges posed by the specter of urban terrorism. Instead of having people get close to hazards such as unattended objects or car bombs, robots are used. If an operator concludes a dangerous object might explode, the robot could neutralize that object by shooting to detonate it, Goldenberg says. Mobile robots detect and explode in-ground mines or improvised explosive devices. These same mobile robotic systems are used for neutralizing or exploding forgotten ordnance and mines after conflicts cease.
Security and patrol functionalities have extended into the private sector. Companies invest in autonomous vehicles to monitor warehouses, factories, and office spaces. These sentinel applications provide users with the ability to monitor a variety of conditions such as motion, intrusion, water ingress, and temperature.
Thompson, Applications Engineer with MICROMO. (Clearwater, Florida) Ground-based systems use robotics for surveillance. These platforms are equipped with weapons and cameras.
Some reconnaissance robots as “throw-bots,” saying these systems are Small and light robots, robust enough to throw through a window or doorway. The robot is equipped with a camera to see within a building without sending in people. If the structure is without light, the mobile platform’s camera is equipped with infrared or night vision, Thompson says. Another less conventional robotic application is a small reconnaissance aircraft transported by backpack. A soldier throws small reconnaissance aircraft into the air which takes off and recover themselves.
Additionally, mobile robotics assist military personnel transport equipment in the field. In military applications, wearable robotics help soldiers carry a heavy pack load. A robot acts like a pack mule, is fully autonomous, and carries a large amount of supplies.
Robots can be used to help inspect and maintain nuclear weapons. Mobile robotic systems inspect nuclear missiles. Commonly, such inspection systems were large, requiring several people in protective suits going into containment systems. Now, smaller self-guided robotic systems require only one person in a protective suit going to a certain point and letting the robot go. The robot is remotely operated outside the containment system, reducing the number of people and the amount of time people are exposed to relatively high radiation levels.
Autonomy or Control
The level of autonomy separates industrial robotics from their battlefield counterparts. Mobile robotic platforms are operated remotely and do not have the autonomy of industrial robots.
The limited intelligence extends to networking the mobile robots with global positioning satellites. (GPS) Mobile robotic systems make use of GPS to navigate. The robot will decide how it will get to its destination and is able to detect a target and the rest of the surrounding environment.
Autonomous navigation in delivering goods to a manufacturing line or patrolling a peopled space, to monitoring a security fence or mapping terrain are areas integrators work on developing. A variety of technologies are ‘meshed’ to provide comprehensive guidance packages that allow autonomous vehicles to accurately navigate unstructured and undefined spaced indoors as well as outdoors. These systems avail themselves to GPS, sonar, two- and three- dimensional lasers, among other guidance systems.
Mobile robotic platforms used in national security applications must move within unstructured environments. The ability to operate over challenging terrain and the ability to autonomously navigate in unstructured environments are areas of focus.
Dealing with varied terrain places extra demands on the mobile robot’s propulsion system, among other systems. Power management and new generation drive-train systems utilize advanced materials and highly efficient transmissions to obtain higher speed, accuracy as well as durability to work in a wide range of environments. Enhanced power management comes through more advanced fuel cells and newly designed battery and charging systems.
Configuring a robot to ascend and descend obstacles in unstructured environments with ease is a design challenge and uses more power. The system must be able to overcome both regularly shaped obstacles such as stairs and those of an unspecified shape such as rocks, downed trees and other miscellaneous objects. The design benchmark is the ability to go up a 45-degree incline of a flat surface or irregular obstacles. Sometimes the requirement is as much as 50 degrees or steeper. Engineers must consider the center of gravity, torque requirements to ascend inclines, mass, and payloads when designing mobile robotic systems for military purposes.
Securing Security Robots
The security of data transmitted to and from mobile robotic platforms, particularly video, is vital in military or law enforcement operations. The frequency of transmitting video must be secure if using a wireless connection. Transmission is secured both ways so no one or nothing can interfere with the images. The method of image transfer is not in the hands of integrators of these systems, as is usually the case when designing typical industrial robotic work cells. Rather, the video transmission system is integrated by the end-user, such as military or law enforcement personnel.
The quality of images must be good because those images are the only way the operator knows what the robot does. The operator does not have the robot in a line of sight but could be a mile away.
Vision systems enable a vehicle-mounted articulated arm to pick randomly oriented objects from its environment to monitoring motion in security applications. Mobile systems use a variety of sensory inputs including laser, sonar, as well as tactical inputs to enable a vehicle to dynamically interact with its environment. Vision is used for both navigation and by the end-of-arm tool to pick and place product in warehouses as well as in tending equipment in remote service applications.
The need for robotics performing tasks in military applications will continue expanding. Military applications are a growing market for mobile robotics, and will continue to grow, says Thompson. The military is always pushing for new ways to keep their people out of harm’s way.