MTSU, Military Deepen Partnership on Robotics Research

A historic educational partnership recently formed between MTSU, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps will explore how to add low-cost hardware and software to existing small robots so that Raven unmanned aircraft could be used as an eye-in-the-sky relay.

From facilitating missile strikes on terrorists to keeping soldiers from harm's way by defusing IED's in war zones, unmanned aerial and ground vehicles have transitioned from Hollywood scripts to military necessities.

But the technology surrounding these tools holds greater possibilities within and beyond the battlefield, and Middle Tennessee State University will be at the forefront of that research by partnering with the military to explore ways to improve and expand use of this technology, including commercially.

"Imagine a small unmanned aircraft directing a ground robot where to spot-spray agricultural fields for weeds in real time," said Mark Blanks, interim director of the MTSU Unmanned Aerial Systems program. "Or imagine an unmanned ground vehicle providing a closer look at an object identified by an aircraft."

A historic educational partnership recently formed between MTSU, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps will explore how to add low-cost hardware and software to existing small robots so that Raven unmanned aircraft could be used as an eye-in-the-sky relay. The pact will allow for the study of ways robots on the ground can be used in concert with unmanned vehicles in the air.

To watch video of the partnership announcement on YouTube, visit

Research at the MTSU Farm in Lascassas using robotic and unmanned aerial systems may be one of the initial opportunities the partnership. The agreement allows the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office "to loan and transfer research equipment to MTSU." The Robotic Systems Joint Project Office is headquartered in Warren, Mich., with a satellite office at Redstone Arsenal, and is jointly operated by the Army and Marines.

Additionally, the partnership allows the Army and Marines to assist in the development of courses and materials for MTSU, and involve faculty and students in defense laboratory research projects.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and the Army's Lt. Col. Nick Kioutas recently signed the formal agreement at the Murfreesboro campus. Four students, a military Raven unmanned vehicle, the iRobot PackBot 500 system and other unmanned vehicles participated in a demonstration to media and others attending the announcement - the first of its kind between MTSU and the Army and Marines.

It comes one year after the University and Army entered into another unique partnership to support MTSU's educational and research efforts into the Army's remote-controlled Raven aircraft.

"It's awesome," Brent Taylor, a senior aerospace administration and business double major from Fort Campbell, Ky., said of the technology and research possibilities for students. "I stumbled into it in an unmanned aircraft systems class last fall and then (fellow student) Brett Bornhoft mentioned the unmanned systems club.

"A year later, we've already advanced up to two partnerships and received a special projects grant funding from the MTSU Foundation that was given to us earlier this year that will allow us purchase things like the robots and the technology that goes with them."

Such advances would increase the range and utility of the robots and build on the University's continued pursuits in scientific research by students and faculty.

"Our partnership provides us the opportunity to enhance the capabilities of today's soldier and tomorrow's commercial markets," Blanks said.

Pending FAA approval and with many unknowns surrounding the project, unmanned ground vehicles and aircraft potentially could be used in agricultural applications including:

• inspection of an irrigation pump with its camera;

• an unmanned spraying system for herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer, etc.;

• selectively removing invasive weeds from a high-value crop such as vineyards; and

• monitoring a herd of cattle and even checking vital signs from RF transmitters installed on the cattle.

"We are still trying to determine the way this is going to work," Blanks said. "We know the systems can be used for ag purposes, but it is doubtful that these systems are ideal for it. They probably will be more of a stand-in for a later-to-be-developed commercial robot product."

Adding an unmanned aircraft to the mix, Blanks said counter-improvised explosive device operations gain an aerial view of the surrounding area and can see insurgent "scouts" or other evidence to help in their determination of whether or not the threat they are investigating is really the explosive device.

"The unmanned aircraft system can identify trouble weed areas for agricultural unmanned ground vehicles or highlight cattle with high temperatures for further investigation," Blanks said.

He said the comparison between (IED) improvised explosive device usage and agricultural usage starts with unmanned ground vehicles being used militarily in the following manner:

• a suspicious package or location(s) is brought to the attention of an explosive ordinance device team;

• instead of approaching the location on foot and endangering a soldier, the unmanned ground vehicle is sent in to use its cameras to obtain a closer look at the area and potentially manipulate the package to determine its nature; and

• if there is sufficient reason to believe it is an explosive device, then the unmanned vehicle will be used to carry a smaller demolition charge out to the package, drop the charge and then it will be remotely detonated when the vehicle has returned to safe distance. This should result in a secondary explosion of the device.

Following the recent agreement signing on campus, MTSU senior Steve Lawn, an aerospace professional pilot major from Charleston, S.C., maneuvered a robot across the floor of Cantrell Hall for a demonstration and then outside to the Veterans Memorial site.

"The end goal for interoperability (systems working together) is basically to take all unmanned vehicles - air, ground, water - and have a common interface, a common language so that if a person, a soldier for instance, gets trained on the system, they don't have to go to a different training for every single system," Lawn said.

The robot, which has different variations, is considered an unmanned ground vehicle or tracked vehicle with manipulator arm, Blanks said, adding that both systems came from recent deployment with a combat engineer battalion in Afghanistan, where they were used to investigate and probably defeat improvised explosive devices.

Bornhoft, a junior aerospace engineering student from Kansas City, Mo., and Alex McCloud, a senior aerospace pro pilot major from Maryville, also exhibited their robot-maneuvering expertise.

"These robots save lives," Lt. Col. Kioutas said. "… The Raven UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), they look like little remote-control airplanes, but there's a lot of technology in there, and those save lives."

Kioutas added that MTSU's existing partnership with the Army to support educational and research efforts into the Army's remote-controlled Raven aircraft and close proximity to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., helped clinch the relationship.

Lt. Col. Robb Walker of the Army's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program echoed Kioutas' comments.

"The UAS Project Office enjoys a great relationship with MTSU and we're excited about this new opportunity for them," he said.

"This agreement is another in a series of bold steps forward that we've taken to provide the very best in facilities, training and service in this important area," McPhee said.

Blanks re-emphasized the benefit of the partnership to MTSU students.

"Our educational partnership with the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office provides our students with the opportunity to work hands-on with the actual hardware that is employed by today's soldiers and to research the most cutting-edge advances in unmanned technology," he said.

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