Monday, March 14, 2016

Two-Armed Robots for US Army

The Army has fielded a lot of "one-armed bandits" over the years, said Maj. R. Clayton McVay, referring to robots with just one arm.

While they work well for many tasks, explosive ordnance disposal personnel, or EOD, have different requirements. "They want two-armed robots" to diffuse bombs, he said.

"I'm looking for one to put in a program of record," he added. "We want to write the right kind of requirements. I don't care which contractor does the job, I just want one that works."

McVay, Robotics deputy branch chief, Dominant Maneuver Division, Army G-8, spoke at a robotics conference here, March 2.

Getting a two-armed robot, or any other robot into a program of record is challenging,"given the bureaucracy," he lamented. It often takes four or five years to work through the process.

McVay noted that he's sorting through piles of some 10,000 robots used in Afghanistan, trying to determine which are worthy to become programs of record. The two-armed one, he said, is high on his list.

All robots, he said, will need to be operated wirelessly, so all the cabling needs to be ripped out. Another important aspect is cybersecurity. "You don't want the enemy hacking into your robot and taking control of it."

Hau Do, EOD Robotics Tools and Equipment Team lead, EOD Technology Directorate of the Armament, Research Development and Engineering Center, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, said:

"We're working closely with the requirements community as well as the developers to come up with this new capability," he said, meaning two-armed robots. "Our No.1 priority is saving Soldiers' lives and providing Soldiers additional capabilities to do their tasks more easily and efficiently as well."


One such two-armed robot was traipsing around the Waterford Hotel, greeting guests and performing feats, where the National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored robotics events took place.

Do said his team at Picatinny was working with its developers, RE2 Robotics, out of Pittsburgh.

Reeg Allen, RE2's director of business development, spoke as the robot unzipped a woman's purse, extracted a widget, danced about, put the widget back into the purse and zipped it back up. A one-armed robot can't do that, he said.

Asked if the robot had a name like R2D2 or something, he said it's called the highly-dexterous manipulation system. That's the control system for the arms, which sits atop a legacy TALON unmanned ground vehicle.

RE2, he explained, is using an Army small-business innovation research grant, funded through Do's office.

EOD operators are currently using one-armed robots to diffuse bombs, he said. "Have you ever tried unscrewing a water bottle cap with one arm? You can't."

That's the dilemma facing EOD operators every day in Afghanistan and elsewhere when they need to countercharge a bomb, he said. Their robots can only do so much before a human operator needs to intervene.

Soldiers are currently testing and evaluating this robot, he said. "They say we are on the right track, but they wanted the control system improved, so we designed a joystick to control the two-armed manipulator downrange, a safe distance from the Soldiers."

The controller has such a good ergonomic design that a Soldier can get the robot to unzip the purse and do the tasks described previously in just one minute, he said. They love it.

The controller doesn't just control the arms, he said, it controls the tracks, cameras, speed, direction and so on.

Human arms have seven degrees of freedom, Allen said. That's the number of ways a person's arm can twist and rotate. The manipulator arms on this robot have five degrees of freedom, with one degree of freedom for the torso. That means the torso tilts up and down.

While more degrees of freedom might seem the way to go, the Army doesn't think so, he said.

The Army is looking at keeping the system to the minimum degrees of freedom necessary to do the job in order to control the cost. "You want to also minimize the cost when these things do blow up."