MITRE Helps Unmanned Vehicles Shine at Army's First Robotics Rodeo

August 2010
Topics: Technological Innovations, Artificial Intelligence, Combat Service Support, Unmanned Systems
MITRE helped the Army create the first Robotics Rodeo at Fort Hood, Texas, where vendors from across the country demonstrated the battlefield-support skills of their autonomous vehicles.

Lieutenant General Rick Lynch knows that nothing can bring back the 153 soldiers who died under his command. But he is now intensely focused on what could have saved them: robots.

"Robotic technology that exists today can save the lives of our soldiers tomorrow," says Lynch, former commander of the Army's III Armored Corps at Fort Hood, Texas. But long development cycles mean that it can take months or even years for that technology to reach the battlefield. And even then, the proposed solutions often lack input from the very people who ultimately depend on them—the soldiers themselves.

So, with the help of a MITRE team, in August 2009 Lynch hosted the first Robotics Rodeo—part trade show, part competition—that focused on letting soldiers and vendors learn from one another. Just as a traditional rodeo is designed to test the skill and speed of the participants, the Robotics Rodeo invited more than 30 vendors to put their robots to the test in a hot, dusty, challenging environment, and allowed soldiers and robotics experts to judge the results.

"The idea was to put real soldiers in contact with real technologists," says Richard Weatherly, director of robotics and computing for the MITRE's Army Programs Directorate. "That gives soldiers a chance to discuss what they need, and the technologists to learn what is necessary."

A Seat at the Table

MITRE's involvement with the Rodeo came as a result of its work with the MITRE Meteor, the autonomous vehicle developed for the DARPA 2005 Grand Challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The following year, the Meteor team took the vehicle to the MITRE site at Fort Hood to research ways to use robots to defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which eventually brought MITRE and its work to Lynch's attention.

"What got us a seat at the table is that we'd built a large robot and run it successfully in a major competition," Weatherly says. "The Grand Challenge experience meant that we knew about the logistics of managing robots in the field and about what makes good evaluation criteria."

Along with Brian Soeder, a MITRE lead systems engineer based at Fort Hood, Weatherly helped III Armored Corps create a model for the Rodeo concept and design the criteria for evaluating the robots in four critical areas: robotic convoy (unmanned vehicles transporting equipment and supplies); IED detection and defusion; robotic wingmen (an unmanned vehicle paired with a manned one); and persistent stare (a robot for monitoring surveillance equipment).

Finding the Best Use for an Evolving Technology

"Robots today can solve almost any specific problem, but understanding what the specific issues faced by soldiers are—and finding ways to address them—is probably the biggest challenge," Soeder says. Vendors were given no specific technological direction. Instead, the MITRE team developed examples of combat scenarios typically faced by soldiers, and vendors were then free to design solutions for each scenario. According to Weatherly, "We wanted to challenge them to understand the warfighter's needs without limiting their vision or imagination."

The Rodeo attracted a wide range of visitors, including high-ranking generals, a local high school robotics club, and others, who all came to observe large and small robots being put through their paces. The event featured five challenge courses: two observation areas for testing persistent stare technologies; two simulated local villages; and walk lanes containing IEDs.

Soldiers were asked to observe and provide feedback on the performance of each robot, while objective evaluations, using MITRE-designed criteria, were performed by the Tank and Automotive Research and Development Engineering Center (TARDEC), the national laboratory for advanced automotive technology. In addition to TARDEC engineers, members of MITRE's robotics team also participated on each evaluation team.

"MITRE's robotics experts were extremely useful in the evaluation, particularly in conveying specific needs and problems to the vendors," says Soeder.

A Partnership Developed over a Decade

The roots of the Robotics Rodeo event go back over a decade to the Army's Task Force XXI program. Formed for the Advanced Warfighting Exercises in 1997, this battlefield digitized brigade tested concepts and technologies such as software-defined radio, ground surveillance radar, and advanced unmanned aerial vehicle technology. The program was significant in that it allowed soldiers to test technologies far earlier in their development cycle. According to Soeder, "Often, the first time a soldier sees a solution is after an initial build—and by then, it's too late to make significant changes. Force XXI was an example of successfully involving soldiers earlier in the development cycle."

Today, many of the technologies tested by Force XXI are being employed on the battlefield. "This is an excellent technique for maturing technologies that soldiers hadn't seen before," Soeder says. "Since robots are so warfighter-interactive, it's important to get them into the hands of soldiers more quickly, and the best way to do that is to get direct feedback from soldiers to developers. It's a really powerful partnership."

And the power of that partnership, say Soeder and Weatherly, is a force that could change technology acquisition in a major way. Inspired by the interest in the Robotics Rodeo, other organizations—including the U.S. Marines, TARDEC, the Army Capabilities Integration Center, and the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development, and Engineering Centerare embracing the "rodeo" format, or what Soeder calls "spiral development through experimentation," for their own stakeholders.

"The legacy of the first Robotics Rodeo is the idea of getting technology providers directly in contact with the customer," Weatherly says. "As an approach, it was a big success. It brought a lot of technologies forward and let vendors understand more about what soldiers were interested in, but its biggest impact may have been in creating a whole new way to speed up acquisition."

The next Robotics Rodeo is scheduled for October 12-15 at the U.S. Army's Maneuver Battle Lab, Fort Benning, Georgia.

"Now that the Robotics Rodeo is established," Weatherly notes, "the MITRE robotics team is focusing on customer impact by making sure key government sponsors attend the Fort Benning event. We can help them understand what they're seeing, as well as how what they learn can be used to the best advantage of their respective programs."

—by Tricia C. Bailey


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