Army researchers envision future robots

The U.S. Army is investing in robotics research and development with a vision of increasing autonomy.

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Nov. 3, 2014) -- The U.S. Army is investing in robotics research and development with a vision of increasing autonomy.

"As we plan for the future, we've determined that advanced autonomy-enabled technologies will play an even greater role in keeping our Soldiers safe," said Dr. Paul D. Rogers, director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center at the Detroit Arsenal, Warren, Michigan.

In the November/December 2014 issue of Army Technology Magazine, Rogers outlines the future of autonomous vehicles research and development. His aim is not to replace Soldiers, but provide a "continuum of capabilities that will augment and enable them, while filling some of the Army's most challenging capability gaps."

The future is closer than many people think. As individual technologies mature and gain acceptance, autonomy is evolving layer-by-layer, according to Matt Donohue, science and technology ground maneuver technology portfolio director for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

"For certain mission sets, most of the technologies we need for autonomous ground systems are mature and, in some cases, are being offered commercially by the automotive industry," Donohue said.

In the far future, the Army envisions robots and autonomous vehicles as integral members of the team that help to maintain current capabilities.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory formed the Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance five years ago with a goal to "explore technologies required for the deployment of future intelligent military unmanned ground vehicle systems ranging in size from man-portables to ground combat vehicles."

"The future for unmanned systems lies in the development of highly capable systems, which have a set of intelligence-based capabilities sufficient to enable the teaming of autonomous systems with Soldiers," said Dr. Jonathan A. Bornstein, chief, Autonomous Systems Division for Army Research Laboratory, and the collaborative alliance manager. "To act as teammates, robotic systems will need to reason about their missions, move through the world in a tactically correct way, observe salient events in the world around them, communicate efficiently with Soldiers and other autonomous systems and effectively perform a variety of mission tasks."

Army researchers are moving forward with careful consideration of what will be necessary or may happen in the future. In a September 2014 Army Research Laboratory colloquium, Dr. Ronald C. Arkin, a professor from Georgia Tech, roboticist and author, challenged researchers to consider the implications of future autonomous robots.

"Don't we have a responsibility as scientists to look for effective ways to reduce man's inhumanity to many through technology?" Arkin asked. "Research in ethical military robotics could and should be applied toward achieving this end. I believe we can make a difference in this."

The introduction of new technologies to society often comes with challenging ethical questions, according to Army researcher Christopher Kroninger, who attended the colloquium.

"This was a great exploration of a particularly thorny issue," he said. "It was certainly a provocative topic. I'd say the primary line of discussions in the conversations I participated in regarded what sorts of behaviors might prompt more ethical decision making on the battlefield and what governs the role of acceptance of intelligent systems in society."

Researchers and engineers hope robotics and autonomous vehicle research will create greater stand-off distances, make supply distribution safer and help increase flexibility.

"Nothing can replace the life of a Soldier," Rogers said. "Autonomy-enabled systems will help make the Army more expeditionary, keep Soldiers safe and make them more efficient."

Army Technology Magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.


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