AMREL in Popular Science Magazine

Popular Science has an article about applications developed for military robots that may find use in the civilian world. One of the spotlighted applications utilizes an AMREL computing platform. Created for iRobot’s PackBot, it allows command and control of unmanned systems, even when there is interference by urban buildings. This customized solution is one of many that leverages the flexibility of AMREL’s computers. Check out “7 Military Robots, Now Modified for Your Living Room.”

For more information about how AMREL computers are used for the PackBot, visit the “Deployed Solutions” section in our Robotics website.

Robots shrink as their budgets grow

Recently, this blog analyzed Defense budgets for unmanned systems (Robots good. People bad).  We took the relatively uncontroversial position that whether or not the Defense budget itself grows, the funding for unmanned systems will increase.

ABI Research seems to support our conclusion in a new report that states,”…the global market for military robotics will grow from $5.8 billion in 2010 to more than $8 billion in 2016.”  This will happen in spite of “…continuing weak economic conditions that negatively impact spending on defense systems; a dearth of active military conflicts for most of the world, which reduces the need for new defense systems…”

Ironically, while unmanned budgets grow, the robots themselves are becoming smaller.  In the cleverly titled “Robots Forced To Carry Out Unspeakable Acts,” Strategy details the evolution of Unmanned Ground Vehicles.  User input from warfighters favors lighter and more compact systems, so the Army is developing and purchasing Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles (SUGV).

Smaller sizes are not just for land vehicles. Aviation Week reports on the popularity of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in “U.S. Army Explores New Small UAS.”

The shrinking form factors of unmanned systems confirms a deeply held suspicion of mine; when you or I see the latest unmanned system, we think, “Gee, that’s cool! What does it do?”  When a soldier sees it, he thinks, “I sure hope I don’t have to carry that thing.  How heavy is it?”

What’s the difference between AMREL’s medical and military computers?

They’re built to different standards. AMREL’s ROCKY computers meet military standards for ruggedness, whereas our medical computers meet IEC 60601-1 standard for medical electrical equipment.

This has led to some hardware differences. ROCKY’s military computers are shielded to meet MIL-STD 461E for electromagnetic interference. To meet EMC (as well as safety) requirements, the medical versions have rubber pads on the bottom and fewer interface connections at its rear.

Note: Both AMREL’s ROCKY and medical computers are certified by third parties. Unlike other companies, we are not satisfied with unsubstantiated claims of compliance.

Beyond the tweak: End-user communication solutions

Many people regard “end-user input” as something that happens at the end of a development process. However, the role of social media in the recent unrest in Middle East reminds us that end-users can be used for more than just “tweaking” solutions prepared by professionals.  Faced with government cut-off of networking services, organizers are finding ingenious ways of using communication platforms. More and more, “ordinary people” are demonstrating creativity in all stages of the solution-development process.

Numerous examples of end-user resourcefulness are detailed in the Economist’s “Not just talk.” In developing countries, a cell-phone may be the only available computer, so people make the most of it.  Farmers look for the best market prices, consumers track fake drugs, students take English lessons, and the unemployed look for work.

Cell-phones, especially smart phones, have also attracted the attention of the Defense establishment. While there has been formal research of smart phone applications, (The War App: Smart Phones Could Control Drone Camera discusses one of many efforts), the Defense community is also turning to end-users as a source of development.

As reported in by IStrategyLabs in “Apps for the Army Winners – Doubling Our Expectations,” a contest open to soldiers and civilians employed by the US Army resulted in many useful mobile and web applications.  The success of this competition defied skepticism that said:

“ · The Army is too big and slow to do something like this

· Soldiers don’t know how to code

· Soldiers don’t know anything about security

· The apps will be low quality – leave the development to the pros

· The process will kill any excitement in the program”

In fact, “This program has taken the software development life-cycle down from an average of more than 1 year to roughly 90 days.  Soldiers are now empowered and incentivized to build solutions to their own problems rather than rely on outside actors to big them the tools they need.”

The imagination of soldiers extends beyond communication solutions. Reputedly, the first armed robot used in theater was an ordinary IED-hunting Unmanned Ground Vehicle that had been jerry-rigged with weaponry by forward-placed soldiers. In NDIA’s  ‘Robot Army’ in Afghanistan Surges Past 2,000 Units,  Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, Project Manager for the Joint Project Office for Robotics systems (JPRO), indicated that soldiers are maintaining their inventiveness, “They are using them in ways we never expected.”

Early input by end-users accelerates the development process and improves the quality for the delivered solution. AMREL is in the solutions business, so we constantly seek early input from end-users at the Robotics Rodeo, Tactical Network Topology (TNT) field experiments and other events.

Does This Robotic Form Factor Make Me Look Fat?

The form factors of unmanned systems vary wildly, from the behemoth 512 kg General Atomics MQ-1 Predator to the tiny IAI’s Mosquito micro UAV, which barely weighs 500 grams. Critical subsystems, such as Operator Control Units (OCU) also differ in shape, and size.

Just as missions dictate whether an unmanned system has wings, tractors or wheels, the specific display and control needs of a given task will determine the configuration of an OCU. Field operators need to travel light, so small portable handheld OCUs are preferable, while stationary personnel, such as those who control long-range UAVs, may enjoy the luxury of a work console with tremendous computational capacity and a correspondingly larger form factor. Vehicle mounted OCUs offer a compromise between power and mobility.

Whether the unmanned system’s operator should be deployed….

For the rest of the article click here.

Afghan Mission Network: The Human Factor

One of General Stanley McChrystal’s accomplishments as coalition commander in Afghanistan was the genesis of the Afghan Mission Network (AMN),a meshing of the communication links and data feeds used by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).  The numbers are daunting. 50,000 users from 40 countries of the ISF use something like 30 separate networks, including United Kingdom’s Overtask, Canada’s Land Command Support System, and the American Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET). At least 165 applications (including 13 from NATO) and the data that populated those applications were moved from national networks to the shared one.

However, as Wired reported, McChrystal thinks the technical problems of net-centric warfare are relatively minor compared to the human factors. In a speech to the Network-Centric Warfare conference, McChrystal said that “by far the hardest part” was creating the appropriate “culture.”

The failure to alter our “culture” about intelligence and communications has led not only to dangerous situations, but absurd ones as well. By law, SIPRNET is only available to US armed forces. As a result, two-star British general Nick Carter, commander of Regional Command–South was unable to access information that was available to thousands of the American troops under his authority.  Even McChrystal had trouble getting critical data from intelligence agencies.

SIPRNET will not be replaced by AMN. Instead, AMN will create a Common Operational Picture (COP) for joint warfighting missions such as battlespace management, fires, ISR, counter-IED and force protection.  NATO C3 Agency project manager Wilco Dissevelt told Digital-Battlespace  “…NATO will use one tool and the US will use another tool, but they will be able to see the same information on both. Our job is to ensure that the green dot means the same thing on both systems.”

The COP approach begs the question: what kind of change is the AMN? Is it an automobile or a computer?  When cars first replaced horses, designers were reluctant to give up centuries old customs.  As a result, some early cars reputedly had holders for buggy whips. On the other hand, computers were supposed to usher in the age of the “paperless” office, a phenomenon that is still rare, if not totally non-existent.  If the AMN presents an identical COP as SIPRNET, wouldn’t that make SIPRNET as anachronistic as buggy whips? If SIPRNET still has unique applications and information, is the Common Operating Picture truly all that common?  Maybe, even with a true COP, SIPRNET will still have uses, as paper still does in a modern office.

The cultural issues surrounding AMN highlight not only the human factors, but the importance of the humans themselves.  Personnel who collect intelligence and relay communications can no longer be considered secondary actors in this conflict.  Their actions have profound effects at virtually every strategic and tactical level. As Brig. Gen. Brian Donahue, director of command, control, computers and communications systems at the Army’s Central Command told Signal magazine, “If you think a signal commander or signal officer is not a warfighter, you’ve never been to Afghanistan.”

Multinational Tactical Communications

One of the big challenges facing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is that radio systems from different countries don’t communicate with each another. Coordinating disparate radio systems in joint international operations will be a major focus of the Tactical Communications Conference, which will take place in April in London.

Defense has a brief interview with one of the conference’s featured speakers, Dr. Vigneron, who is the Canadian Representative to the VHF/UHF Waveform Standardization Group at NATO.  The interview gives us a brief taste of his presentation.

Anyone familiar with this field knows that one of biggest headaches is integration of old legacy systems. Dr. Vigneron reports that there will be a “long transition period,” since many of the older systems are broadcast-oriented and not true networks. Dr. Vigneron specifically cites slow switching as a characteristic problem.

Then there’s the sensitive question of national sovereignty versus international needs. Dr. Vigneron estimates that any given national system will be using multinational waveforms 10-20% of the time.  Of course, individual countries have the option of adopting the multinational standard, which most European nations have done for air-to-air and air-to-ground systems.

From Dr. Vigneron’s interview, one gathers many of the problems will be institutional rather than technical.  NATO will set the multinational standards for its members, but how will compliance be enforced?  Which legacy systems will be retrofitted and which will be replaced?  How will crypto functions be shared among sovereign nations? Will the richer countries’ desire to upgrade standards be hampered by the poorer nations’ lack of resources?

Hear Dr. Vigneron opinions on the challenges of integrating tactical communication systems across national borders by clicking here.

UCAVs vs. 5th Generation Jet Fighters

AMREL computers serve as Operator Control Units for many unmanned vehicles, so I pay close attention to that application.  Recently an article on Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) caught my interest.  In a posting titled “UCAVs: The Future of Air Warfare,” a self-described Muslim think tank argues that Pakistan can counter the perceived threat of advanced Indian jet fighters with UCAVs.  I found this article interesting, because:

  1. It is an excellent, well –sourced introduction to UCAVs.
  2. Even though the arena of battlefield robots is dominated by a few nations, unmanned vehicles are a worldwide phenomenon. This article makes clear that industry observers need to pay attention to more than just the usual suspects.
  3. The application of unmanned vehicles has primarily been in asymmetric warfare. This article demonstrates a strategic use of robots in a traditional state vs. state conflict.

Some comments posted on this article have attacked the authors’ nationalistic and religious beliefs, which for our purposes here are irrelevant.  More pertinent are the criticisms of Pakistan’s economic and technological ability to field a fleet of UCAVs.  Anyone can stick a sensor or even a weapon on a plane from a hobby store and call it a UCAV. However, that is a far cry from transforming UCAVs into meaningful defense assets. For example, Russia is a global leader in military technology.  Yet, Defense Industry Daily notes that Russia wants to buy Israeli UAVs, because their own production/engineering resources as well as miniaturization capabilities are inadequate.

Even more questionable than Pakistan’s technological capability is the central thesis.  The think-tank’s author specifically proposes that UCAVs can successfully operate against 5th generation jet fighters, which can be defined as “…the fighter aircraft which are newest and most advanced as of 2011.” Does anyone really expect unmanned vehicles to seriously challenge the most advanced manned fighters deployed this year? Sure, UCAVs may eventually render the occupation of jet fighter pilot obsolete, but during the current generation?

Let us know what you think. Just how soon are our Top Guns going to be seriously threatened by UCAVs?