Interoperability Standards Pave the Way for Modular Robotic Manipulators

Unmanned vehicles have long been used by the military to handle situations characterized by the three Ds: dull, dirty, and dangerous. As the use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in the military and industry becomes more complex, the need for interoperability on and between systems has exponentially increased.

A U.S. Army robot equipped with RE2 Robotics’ Highly Dexterous Manipulation Systems (HDMS) opens the door of an emergency vehicle. (Image courtesy of EOD Technology Division, US Army ARDEC)

The U.S. Army's Interoperability Profiles (IOP) is at the forefront of this effort. IOP standardizes the software and hardware interfaces between major subsystems, such as between a robotic platform and a manipulator arm, or between a robotic platform and a controller. IOP dramatically reduces the integration effort required when introducing new capabilities, such as pay-loads and sensors, to robot systems. IOP also helps developers concentrate on their specific areas of expertise. Finally, it allows companies to leverage their combined strengths to create best-of-breed solutions that quickly and effortlessly adapt to changing missions.

The need for interoperability among systems is essential for numerous reasons. During an active engagement, for instance, a system's ability to be rapidly configured through hot-swappable payloads can reduce the time it takes to perform missions. IOP also affords portability, since systems can easily be disassembled into several pieces that can be carried by multiple people. Cost savings are realized by creating competition for these modular components. Finally, a path for rapid insertion of new capability onto IOP-based systems is created.

“The transition from ‘stove-piped’ proprietary solutions toward open architecture and interoperability fosters innovation, which often emerges from small business,” says Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2 Robotics in Pittsburgh, Pa.

A U.S. Army robot opens a suspicious backpack for remote inspection of its contents. (Image courtesy of EOD Technology Division, US Army ARDEC)

“This movement toward open architecture and interoperability standards like IOP allows for the integration of the best technology, not just that of one vendor,” adds Pedersen. “This allows for a system to be configured and adjust to different missions more quickly and easily.”

A proponent of IOP, RE2 Robotics develops state-of-the-art technologies that help keep users out of harm's way. RE2 designs robust modular manipulators and humanlike dual-arm robotic systems with imitative controls that can easily be integrated onto a variety of platforms and enable personnel to perform dangerous and complex tasks at a safe distance.

“The direct benefit of IOP is that it enables developers to concentrate on their specific areas of expertise,” says Pedersen. “The state-of-the-art manipulation technology that RE2 develops can easily be integrated on other robotic platforms, quickly getting the best capabilities to the warfighter.”

Proven Field Testing

The advantage of IOP was put on display at a recent Universal Tactical Controller (UTC) event at the Fort Benning Army base, in conjunction with the National Advanced Mobility Consortium (NAMC), a nationwide alliance of small businesses, large defense contractors, academic institutions and research organizations. At the event, representatives from numerous robotics companies were on hand to demonstrate IOP capabilities, including Dynetics, Endeavor Robotics, Neya Systems, QinetiQ North America, RE2 Robotics, and SPAWAR, the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Remotely controlled robot equipped for hazardous duty with onboard communications, vision system, and single manipulator arm. (Image courtesy of the National Advanced Mobility Consortium (NAMC) Members)

During 10 hours of demonstrations over several days of testing, RE2 integrated its DS4-N robotic arm onto the Tank and Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) Ground Vehicle Robot (GVRbot), a modified version of the standardized Packbot. The arm integrated seamlessly after configuring it to match the project's interoperability profile. The robotic system was then ready for the operator to conduct a series of tasks, including locating a simulated IED by manipulating the environment around the robot.

All devices were controlled from one common tactical controller running Multi-robot Operator Control Unit (MOCU) software, allowing the tester to switch from control of a UAV to the GVRbot with the simple press of a button. Developed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, San Diego (SSC San Diego), MOCU software allows for active control of an unmanned system, in which the operator manipulates the unmanned system directly, as well as passive control, in which the operator is receiving a video feed from the system but not controlling its movements.

“Recent demonstrations at Fort Benning between our office and the NAMC have demonstrated that the IOP can be implemented on a controller to enable the control of several different ground robots, and that the IOP is compatible with the interface standards of other domains on the same device, meaning that IOP can coexist with the Unmanned Systems Control Segment, Tactical Open Government-owned Architecture [for controlling unmanned air systems], and several different operating systems,” says Mark Mazzara, Robotics Interoperability Lead, Project Manager Force Projection for the U.S. Army.

A Long-Recognized Necessity

Robots can be used to transport and launch small UAVs from remote locations. (Image courtesy of the National Advanced Mobility Consortium (NAMC) Members)

The need for interoperability among systems was recognized nearly 20 years ago, when the Department of Defense's development of the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Ground Systems (JAUGS) provided a framework for the way system components talk to one another. In the early 2000s, JAUGS was adapted to include not only ground systems, but also maritime and air systems, and became the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems (JAUS). The Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division (NAVEODTECHDIV) selected JAUS to serve as the foundation of its Advance Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System (AEODRS) program.

From that point on, open standards became a requirement for Department of Defense programs and, in 2009, the National Bomb Squad Commanders Advisory Board mandated that all federally acquired UGVs be JAUS-compliant. At the same time, Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO) recognized the need for interoperability among systems and established a team, comprised of both government and industry personnel, to form the foundation of the IOP framework.

Likewise, RE2 remains committed to developing manipulator arms that meet IOP standards. For instance, the company's Highly Dexterous Manipulation System (HDMS) can be easily mounted onto an existing robotic platform to efficiently conduct a variety of missions.

“In the long term, we believe that the IOP will reduce integration costs, shorten the time to integrate new technologies, and enable an ecosystem where certain sensors and manipulators can be very easily used and controlled across different host robots,” says Mazzara. “We believe that these benefits will not only help the government, but will be an advantage to both large OEMs, by reducing their subsystem integration costs, and small companies, by lowering the barrier to entry into the defense market, giving them more potential end users of their sensors and manipulators.”

A robot equipped with RE2 Robotics’ Highly Dexterous Manipulation Systems (HDMS) retrieves a suspicious-looking device. (Image courtesy of RE2 Robotics)

Looking Ahead

While UGV technology continues to advance, RE2 is focused on implementing interoperability standards as it researches and develops robotic arms that are compatible with unmanned underwater and air vehicles.

For instance, RE2 is adapting its ground-based electromechanical manipulation technology for use in a marine environment. The company currently has two programs in development for the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research: an inflatable Underwater Dual Manipulator (UDMI) system and an electro-mechanical Underwater Dexterous Manipulation System for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Applications (DMEA). The UDMI and DMEA systems will provide EOD technicians with the same standoff capabilities that they use to operate on land to effectively address Waterborne Improvised Explosive Devices (WIEDs) and mines. One of the goals of these efforts is to apply interoperability standards, such as IOP, to allow for rapid integration into the Navy's existing underwater robot systems.

“Developing robotic technologies that keep individuals out of harm's way is paramount to the mission of RE2 Robotics,” says Pedersen. “Over the past year we have worked closely with the Navy to transition our expertise to underwater systems. By extending our manipulation capabilities into the submersible space, we are able to enter new markets, such as Offshore Oil and Gas, which rely on the safe inspection, maintenance and repair of underwater structures. Providing dexterous manipulation capabilities to this class of UUVs will open up a new realm of capabilities and applications for unmanned systems.”

The future of military robotics and unmanned systems is bright. For ground, air, and water applications, interoperability standards such as IOP will allow the Department of Defense to get the best technology into the hands of the warfighter and rapidly adapt as new capabilities emerge.

This article was written by Jennifer Brozak, Manager, Marketing Communications, RE2 Robotics (Pittsburgh, PA). For more information, Click Here .