By Ann Roosevelt

Robotics technology could potentially relieve some of the burden on soldiers, who have seen an increased operational tempo over the past several years with no end in sight.

Robotics may offer critical opportunities to reduce soldier risk, workload and implement new capabilities, potentially performing tasks in the areas of logistics, security, engineering, medical and maintenance, according to a new Army white paper.

The current Army budget provides $54 million per year for unmanned vehicle technology in applied research and advanced technology development.

The Robotics Strategy White Paper, prepared by the Army Capabilities Integration Center-Tank-Automotive Research and Development Engineering Center Robotics Initiative, released this month “provides an operational context for an Army ‘robotics strategy’ by identifying and describing mission related tasks within three components of the current research and development strategy.”

Robotics technology experts assessed 32 tasks soldiers conduct to see how feasible it would be for robotics systems to help or conduct those jobs.

A feasibility analysis for the five mission areas offers a detailed look at schedule, cost and complexity for specific tasks.

For example, it might only take a couple of years and less than $500,000 for the not very complicated task of developing robotic systems for aerial cargo transport and delivery of equipment and supplies using unmanned aerial vehicles and pods.

However, for robotic systems to ease the soldier’s burden by transporting equipment and supplies for dismounted maneuver, it could take three to five years and more than $10 million for a highly complex job that would include being highly mobile, the ability to navigate on its own, if necessary, and operate silently.

The White Paper will aid in creating additional robotics applied research and advanced technology development areas and priorities for the Army, provide information for the next version of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Unmanned Systems Roadmap, and aid in updating the Training and Doctrine Command’s Warfighter Analysis and Outcomes and the 2010 revision of the command’s Pamphlet 525-66 (Force Operating Capabilities).

The paper also provides the basis for additional cost-benefit analyses of task areas in which solutions might be “imminent” and have the “greatest operational benefit to the force,” the paper said.

Soldier needs, coming from the bottom up of the individual soldier and small unit and from needs of the service, will determine robotics development and operational use. Robotic systems could keep soldiers from harm’s way, move more soldiers from support roles to combat roles, and reduce the need for forward deployed contractors.

Ground robotics investment comes for immediate needs of deployed soldiers from the development and fielding of mostly commercial off the shelf systems directed by the Rapid Fielding Initiative and the Joint IED Defeat Organization and Future Combat Systems robotics research development and fielding.

Additionally, investment in robotics research and development guided in the main by Defense Department (DoD) priorities in the mission areas of reconnaissance and surveillance target identification and designation, countermine warfare and chemical, biological radiological, nuclear, explosive reconnaissance.

Congress as well has weighed in on robotics, mandating two goals for DoD: by 2010, that one-third of the aircraft in the operational deep strike force is unmanned and by 2015 one third of the FCS operational ground combat vehicles be unmanned.

The white paper considers that in the near and mid-term robots will continue to operate “under some human control.”

But as technology progresses robots will be have higher levels of autonomy and independent operation limited by the reliability of the system and the complexity of the job.