U.S. Military Academy cadets conducted joint field experiments with Army researchers on the development of enhanced Soldier-robot teaming.
The academy’s Robotics Research Center, with support from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, known as DEVCOM, Army Research Laboratory, conducted experiments at the lab’s robotics research area, an approximately 700-acre site just north of Baltimore.
The Robotics Research Collaborative Campus, known as R2C2, is a unique space the lab leases for experimentation and research operations.
The center is the U.S. Military Academy’s premier resource for expertise and academic scholarship in the field of robotics.
Cadets have been working with the laboratory as part of the Distributed Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology, or DCIST, Collaborative Research Alliance on incorporating multi-Soldier-multi-robot teaming capabilities to the ARL ground and aerial autonomy software stacks.
“ARL and the military academy are working on similar problems related to unmanned aerial systems, ground robotics and unattended ground sensors,” said ARL researcher Dr. Joseph Conroy. “As our organizations both focus on basic and applied research, we can uniquely address the same space. ARL hopes this specific experiment will aid the transition of 6.1, or basic research, developed technologies into an ARL-curated repository of autonomy approaches that can be further matured.”
The RRC’s Soldier-focused perspective guided their development of a software bridge between the air and ground autonomy stacks and the Android Team Awareness Kit, or ATAK, which is used by Soldiers for situational awareness, coordinating movement and specifying targets or objectives.
“The ultimate goal of the RRC’s research is for a squad or platoon to task teams of aerial, wheeled and legged robots the same way they would their Soldiers – no Linux command line required,” said Dr. Daniel Gonzalez, postdoctoral fellow at RRC in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
The RRC tested their system on a 650-class quadrotor, Clearpath Husky wheeled robot, ATAK phones and tablets, and a mobile ATAK server running on their mobile Tactical Operations Center.
The robots used the ARL autonomy stacks to navigate autonomously and localize objects of interest. The robots were coordinated around R2C2’s urban terrain site using the ATAK interface, and objects of interest, such as people or vehicles, were populated in ATAK in real time.
This experimentation is focused on enabling coordinated behaviors and communication between air and ground robots, as well as Soldiers, researchers said.
“This is a critical capability as we seek to better understand how Soldiers will interact with these systems and how they will aid missions,” said ARL researcher Dr. Stephen Nogar. “This particular mission was to find an injured person in an urban environment using an air and ground vehicle. While the mission was a success, there is work to do to improve the reliability and coordination of the behaviors.”
The U.S. Military Academy’s RRC’s Soldier-focused contributions to ARL’s autonomy stacks will lead to better multi-Soldier-multi-robot teaming in the future battlefield, Gonzalez said. ARL’s autonomy stacks will also be the base autonomy software for cadet research projects, giving them exposure to leading edge robotic autonomy technology.
“Working with the military academy is a great opportunity to interface with cadets who will be the future leaders of the Army,” Nogar said. “It’s incredibly valuable to expose them to what the future of warfighting may look like, in that robotics will play a major role. We work with many universities, but the U.S. Military Academy brings students and researchers with a unique Army mindset. They have been able to apply ARL’s robotics work to Soldier applicable systems like ATAK, which is a handheld device that can be used to issue commands and visualize data from the autonomous systems.”
ARL and the U.S. Military Academy plan to continue collaboration regarding the fusion of heterogeneous sensor modalities and visual perception from unmanned aerial vehicles, particularly as it relates to the collaboration between aerial sensing with unattended ground vehicles and sensors, Conroy said.
According to Nogar, the immediate work is to continue improving the robustness and communications between the robots and the Soldier. Once that is complete, the next priority is to get more cadets hands-on with this technology and start applying it to training exercises. This will allow cadets to get a more direct feel for how robotics can be useful in Army relevant situations, and start adapting the behaviors for those scenarios.
The group looks forward to what is to come in this research space and all of the possibilities that lie ahead.
“This project has been one tangible example of the burgeoning opportunities offered by the new ARL R2C2 robotics-focused Graces Quarters facility located in Middle River, Maryland,” Conroy said.