Robots good. People bad.

If the Frankenstein monster was tasked with analyzing the world’s Defense budgets, he would pour over mountains of paperwork and then in his famously concise manner, utter the following: “Robots Good. People Bad.”

The monster’s short summaryamrel blog robots good people bad  can be supported by looking at two different kinds of Defense budgets, those that are increasing and those that are shrinking.

In spite of what you may have heard about Secretary Gates’ highly publicized “efficiencies,” the US Defense budget, in real terms, is increasing. The President will ask for a $553 million for the non-war 2012 allocation, a 5% increase over the 2011 budget (Market Watch U.S. budget spat worries military contractors).  This is after a 2011 budget request that was 2.4% larger than the previous year (Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Analysis of the FY 2011 Defense Budget) Read more

Radio Control & Unmanned Systems Overview

The modern battlefield is full of robots all talking at once. Unmanned systems consume significant amounts of communications bandwidth because they require transmission of control signals and large amounts of sensor data. Line-of-sight (LOS) limitations often obstruct high frequency digital radio communications. In addition, encryption, which is necessary for security, can decrease operational distance.

Besides compromising range, radio noise may also affect how the robots respond toinstructions, even instigating false commands. Another consideration is the additional power consumption necessary to burst through interference.

Different types of unmanned systems have specific radio communication challenges….

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Human Robot Interaction

In “UAV Implementation at the Infantry Platoon Level” (Military & Aerospace), the author reported “I spent 2 ½ years over 2 deployments to Iraq as an Infantryman and we rarely had good UAV support. When we did have UAV support, it was not always ‘top of the line’ because the operators were FOB based and it was an office job that became a ‘check the block’ duty.”  The author complained that UAVs were not being “pushed down to the platoon level,” because “…most Commanders are concerned about losing platoon level UAVs.”

His comments about the implementation of UAVs are an interesting example of how Human Robot Interaction (HRI) difficulties frustrate the proper implementation of novel technology.  From the very beginning of the introduction of unmanned systems into the battlefield, there has been a debate about the best positioning of human operators.  For the most part, a consensus has emerged that the dangers posed to operators in the front lines are outweighed by the advantages of close coordination with forward-placed warfighters.

In this instance, UAV deployment was influenced not by concerns about the operators, but–according to the author- by fear of losing valuable equipment. Clearly, these commanders hadn’t gotten the memo that the point of unmanned systems is to assume risk, so the troops don’t have to.

Livescience.com in “Real Soldiers Love Their Robot Brethren” reveals that other soldiers also haven’t gotten this memo.  Quoting Peter Singer (author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century”), they describe a “… soldier who ran 164 feet under machine gun fire to retrieve a robot that had been knocked out of action.”

The phenomenon of soldiers risking their lives for robots was also reported in “Why Bomb-Proofing Robots Might Be a Bad Idea” (Wired.com).  In fact, the author of that article suggests that we should reconsider the ideas of outfitting robots with expensive classified electronic countermeasures, because that “…undermines the purpose of having a disposable army of machines to handle irregular war’s most dangerous work.”

So, in addition to obstructing proper implementation, HRI difficulties affect actual combat. A great deal of research has been done on HRI, but human behavior has a way of confounding even the most dedicated researcher.

Even the User Interface (UI) itself can cause unanticipated problems. In an article to be published in the March OCU Pros newsletter, David Bruemmer, VP of R&D at 5-D Robotics reveals some unexpected problems with commonly used UIs.  Simply put, video feeds and other information-rich UIs may actually be detrimental to the operation of an unmanned system (To read this article and receive the OCU Pro newsletter, sign up here).

The unpredictability of how humans interact with robots may frustrate the drive to field novel technology as fast as possible. This obstacle emphasizes the rather unsurprising idea that end-user input is important early in the development process (At least it should be unsurprising to anyone who reads this blog).

Of course, not all unpredictable human interactions with robots have dire consequences.  Check out this video of a “weaponized” BigDog robot being used in ways that the designers surely never envisioned.

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 Page.com 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?”

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.

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?

 

Peter Singer talks about the future of robotic warfare

We found a very interesting video from TED.com on the future of robotic warfare and we thought you might enjoy it!

How are robots changing war?

Peter Singer talks about how robots are changing how we fight wars and how robots will change the way we fight war in the future. How does using robots in war change public perception of war?

With thousands of robots already in the air and on ground of warzones, what part do they currently play in war and how will they change how we think and fight wars in the future?