Robots will have a big role in the future of ground combat, but that won’t be possible until the systems are widely adopted by infantry forces to perform missions other than bomb disposal, according to the Army’s former chief weapon buyer and the CEO of the robotics company she recently joined.
“I think the utilization of robots since they were demonstrated in terms of IED detection…that focus has shown just how incredibly useful robots can be in terms of dealing with very difficult situations,” Heidi Shyu, former assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, told Defense Daily in a recent interview. “As technology continues to evolve, robots will become more and more capable. I think have a big role in the future of the Army.”
Since exiting the government in January, Shyu took some time to “rejuvenate” and consider her next career move before accepting a position on the advisory board of Roboteam, which develops and manufactures unmanned ground robots.
She brings a “big-picture” perspective to marketing ground robots to the Army, where she was responsible for 12 program executive offices and the Army’s whole research, development and acquisition account. Robotics will have wide ground-combat application beyond ordnance disposal in future years, one reason Shyu said she hitched her star to Roboteam.
The company manufactures a range of unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) from the micro tactical ground robot (MTGR) to the Professional Robot, or PROBOT, a tactical logistics cargo carrier. It has provided robots and other systems for operational activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza and the U.S.
“The way I thought about it was, if there is a capability to utilize a robot which can in essence protect a soldier’s life, or human life, I’m all for it,” Shyu said. “The capability that robots can bring is enormous. I think you will see in the future it will just grow in terms of capability and need.”
Robots have regularly been used by explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians for more than a decade. The units provided an important market and user base for early iterations of both robots and their payloads and sensors, said Roboteam North America Chief Executive Shahar Abuhazira.
“This was an important customer,” he said. “It is an important user base, but the real breakthrough will be when the infantry and Special Forces start to use them.”
The use of robots in offensive operations burst into the public consciousness when police in Dallas, Texas, recently jury rigged one to carry a bomb during a standoff with a cop killer.
“Everyone is talking about robotics because of the events in Dallas and the use of the robot,” Abuhazira said. “But the use of weapons on ground robotic systems, it’s not new, at least on the government, operational side. What was interesting was the police unit that was there, they just did it. They improvised on the spot. This was very unique and very interesting to see how they did a special mission just with the basic capabilities of the robot. It was not a weaponized robot.”
EOD users are experts at using robots because they have used them in combat for more than a decade. Conventional infantry and Special Operations Forces are not well versed in the use of ground robotics, he said. Programs that call for ground robots and associated technologies are expected from larger and larger user bases within the Army and other ground forces, including the Marine Corps, as technology progresses, he said. For robots to gain traction with the Big Army, they must be made more user friendly, he said.
“You need to do some modifications, some adjustments to make them suitable for everybody,” he said. “In order to use robots, you need it to be a very, very simple machine. In the past few years and today, they are complicated, not easy to operate, not easy to control. You need to be sure those machines will be easy to operate.”
Industry is also working to bring down the unit cost of what are very complex systems by designing in modular, open architecture software and hardware. Cost will also decrease with economies of scale, Abuhazira said.
“In order for the government to buy thousands and not hundreds, you need to make sure that those systems will be cost effective and that maintenance cost will be lower,” he said.
Roboteam is developing software to make its robots more autonomous so that they are less directly controlled by a remote operator and instead obey general commands. In the near future, it plans to market robots that have varying degrees of autonomy from direct remote control to fully autonomous, he said.
Work also is being done to simplify payload interfaces so that sensors and other equipment can be swapped out seamlessly in the field to tailor a robot to a specific task or mission.
“One day you want to do inspection, so you need a camera,” he said. “One day you want it for EOD, so you need a manipulator. Another day you want it to do some special mission or to weaponize it, so you need something else.”