The Evolution of Tactical Robots

The lessons of yesterday and today are driving tomorrow’s robotic programs.

A revolution in Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) is taking place today that focuses on formalizing the permanent integration of ground robots into military organizations within the U.S. Department of Defense and other nations’ military forces as well. Similar activities are likewise cementing the relationship of UGVs to first responder organizations as ground robots continue to prove that they save lives.

The retractable arm of the TALON enables the safe removal of explosive ordnance such as improvised explosive devices. (Photo: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Robert R. McRill, U.S. Navy)

The future of ground robotics is bright. Tactical UGVs will increasingly influence not only military and law enforcement operations, but other industries as well. While the most common uses for UGVs today are in providing remote reconnaissance and defeating improvised explosive devices (IEDs), robots have supported combat operations for decades. In fact, the forefathers of today’s UGVs were used as assault weapons in World War II.

Early History of Tactical Robots

A TALON robot inspects a suspected improvised explosive device. Robots such as TALON allow warfighters to clear routes quickly without having to wait for Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams to do so. Advancements in LDTO technology are making it possible to control these systems even further removed from the battlefield, increasing Soldier standoff distance. (U.S. Army photo by SGT Giancarlo Casem.)
The story of tactical robots began in 1939 when a French inventor, Adolphe Kégresse (1879 - 1943), invented a lightweight tracked vehicle for delivering demolitions. Following the German invasion of France in May 1940, and the subsequent occupation of Paris, Kégresse’s prototype was discovered by the Germans, who employed the Borgward Company to develop what would become the Sd.Kfz.302 “Goliath”. This was the beginning of remotely controlled tactical vehicles and robots as they are known today.

The Germans focused on remotely delivering demolitions with their small (Sd.Kfz.302/303 “Goliath”), medium (Sd.Kfz.304 “Springer”) and heavy (Sd.Kfz.301 “Borgward IV”) remotely controlled explosive charge carriers, even creating complete units based on manned and unmanned vehicles teaming together. To make use of captured Allied vehicles, the Germans at times added remote control kits to vehicles such as the Vickers Armstrong Universal Carrier, and loaded these with explosives.

The British experimented with several dozen small amphibian robots called “Beetles”, but these swimming/crawling robots, also designed to deliver explosives, likely never saw combat. The Russians employed radio controlled “teletanks” based on control kits added to their standard T-18, T-26, T-38, BT-5 and BT-7 tanks. The battle of Kursk (Jul-Aug 1943) saw both the Germans and the Russians using remotely controlled vehicles against one another. By the end of the war, perhaps as many as 10,000 remotely controlled ground vehicles were used by the Germans and Russians alone.

Today’s Warfighter

Massachusetts State Police officer wearing a Dragon Runner 10 robot during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Following World War II, UGVs saw sporadic use until 2001, when combat operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq began necessitating the employment of large quantities of ground robots to help defeat the widespread use of IEDs. Military robots earned their battle stripes, establishing themselves as essential equipment for modern warfare. QinetiQ North America’s medium sized TALON® robot, for example, has been heavily used by U.S. and ISAF forces to destroy more than 50,000 IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. These TALON robots, numbering close to 5,000 systems fielded to date, are widely employed by military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams and Combat Engineer route clearance teams to locate and defeat IEDs. TALONs are the most widely used counter-IED robots in the world, and are often equipped with cutting-edge optics, sensors and tools for locating and defeating IEDs.

Small and large robots alike have also played critical roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. The smallest robots, lightweight and throwable, enable a squad to see beyond its current span of observation and into what was formerly dead space, enhancing situational awareness and unit safety. Some small robots employ modular arms and can be used to attack IEDs.

Large robots are used to assist with route clearance missions and even to autonomously carry supplies. These robots are often equipped with advanced sensors to assist with either auton omous navigation or localization of IEDs and other threats before small units are placed in harm’s way.

Over 3,500 TALON robots have supported troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, destroying more than 50,000 IEDs and saving countless lives.
First responders in the U.S. and overseas are learning from the combat lessons of employing UGVs to safeguard personnel in dangerous situations. Civilian bomb squads in the U.S., for example, are required to have robots in their response kits for investigation of possible threats. The first responders’ robots are often the same types of UGVs that the military is using in combat, due to the machines’ proven track record in battle. Fire departments and SWAT teams are likewise picking up on the utility of UGVs and many departments today are already employing ground robots, often with sensors that were previously hand delivered.

Smaller, Lighter and More Versatile

Small enough to fit inside a rucksack but tough enough to be thrown, the Dragon Runner 10 micro unmanned ground vehicle is a lightweight, compact, multi-mission remote platform developed for supporting small unit dismounted operations.
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq progressed, the demand for small, lightweight counter-IED robots grew. The increasing frequency of IEDs interdicting dismounted patrols necessitated that EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), engineer and infantry squads often had to carry robots on their backs. This was a challenge, if not an impossibility, with the medium-sized robots purchased earlier in the war. With evolutions in smaller, more capable radios, motors, computers, batteries and electronics over the past decade, rapid efforts were undertaken to develop and field rugged, lightweight, counter-IED robots. These easily transported systems added versatility and safety to small unit operations.

The Dragon Runner 20 gives users the ability to literally see around corners and into tight spaces, providing a flexible solution to ordnance disposal, reconnaissance, inspection and security in military and first responder applications.
First responders are also experiencing a growing need for lightweight robots, largely learned after the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. While medium and large UGVs were heavily used in Boston, Cambridge and Watertown during the response to the attack, wearable robots proved their unique value as bomb squad members worked their way through congested streets to address discovered threats. These lessons are influencing current police operations as well as their planning for future law enforcement missions. Recently, quick response teams of bomb technicians employed at Super Bowl XLVIII wore Dragon Runner robots from QinetiQ North America on their backs.

The Future of Robotics

As UGVs continue to evolve, the revolution underway is taking the modern lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq, where 8,000-10,000 robots have been used by coalition armies, and creating enduring core programs to address both the current needs of these forces and their future requirements. These core programs will equip units with UGVs in standardized sizes and capabilities as doctrinally assigned equipment, not emergency equipment, and establish formalized training, maintenance, repair and replacement processes.

Core programs will address the needs of military forces, and perhaps first responders, for the better part of the next decade and longer. There will be ever increasing requirements for common components and software, modularity of payloads, commonality of controls, unmanning of supply vehicles and even the arming of UGVs, all the while minimizing costs and simplifying maintenance and repair. Advanced sensors will play an ever-increasing role in enabling these future robots to far better sense their surroundings, avoid collisions, detect threats, increase safety and add speed to operations. Communications systems will continue to evolve and soon all UGVs will be part of a common network where key information is seamlessly pumped to adjacent units as well as up and down the chain of command. Unmanned aircraft and ground robots will also be paired through advanced communication protocols and small unit situational awareness will increase dramatically.

The U.S. Army is exploring options to increase the combat effectiveness of smaller units through robotics, while remaining an agile, dominant force. As robotic systems further evolve to meet the needs of this changing dynamic, so too will the training and logistic needs of the warfighters who command, employ or sustain these robot-enabled fighting formations.

Though little is known about him in the U.S., Adolphe Kégresse, who invented the first tactical robot, has an enduring impact today as UGVs continue to provide ever increasing utility at extended ranges, enhancing safety and situational awareness while performing mission critical tasks.

This article was written by By LTC (Ret) Charlie Dean, Director of Business Development, QinetiQ North America (Shrewsbury, NJ). For more information, Click Here .