Columbus, Georgia – 24 April 2019
The 2019 Robotics Capabilities Conference & Exhibition, in collaboration with Army Futures Command-Maneuver Capability Development and Integration Directorate at Fort Benning, was held to serve as a forum for government, industry, and academia to engage on developing the robotics and autonomous systems of the future.
The expressed objective of the conference — held for the first time in Columbus, Georgia adjacent Fort Benning — on 24-25 April 2019 — was to help industry and academia identify where best to focus R&D efforts to better serve the U.S. military and to showcase cutting edge robotics and autonomous system problem solving.
The Conference program is here.
LTG Eric Wesley, USA, Deputy Commanding General, Futures and Concepts Center, United States Army Futures Command, explained that the new Future Command’s role is to define a blueprint for the future of the Army force structure and thus his comments were high-level and not particularly focused on robotics. Among his comments:
- America views war as binary (either on or off), our peers, the Chinese and the Russians in particular, are at war constantly. They don’t want close combat, rather they want stand-off attack and this is evidenced in the Russians involvement in the U.S. political process.
- The U.S. Army is moving towards Multi-Domain Operations in an increasingly complex environment, but we aren’t there yet.
- The Army has four overarching warfighting requirements: Lethality, Stand-off, Penetration, and Convergence (AI and machine learning). Robotics is central to enhancing Army capability is each of these areas.
- China is slipping past the U.S. in R&D applications. At current growth rates, China will far surpass the U.S. in overall R&D investments in the near future.
- Most of the U.S. investment in R&D today is happening in industry and the DoD must leverage this investment. “The Army Futures Command located itself in Austin to be next to industry, to be next to “kids in blue hair who hang out in Starbucks.”
- Commercial solutions are coming to the battlefield – our enemies are doing it. If we cannot find a way to bring our commercial solutions to the battlefield, we are in trouble.
Helen Greiner, SES, Army HQE Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and AI with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (ASAALT), delivered remarks entitled: “Helping Industry Understand the Army’s effort to Transform Acquisition.” Among her observations:
- Advantages of having robots on the battlefield include increased stand-off distances and ability to perform riskier and longer missions. While there are challenges and tradeoffs with their employment, unmanned systems can and will play a increasingly larger role in combat.
- The establishment of the Army’s Futures Command, developments in contracting (including Section 804/Other Transactions Authority (OTA) arrangements), and the recent establishment of Robotics Programs of Record bode well for military robotics moving forward.
- The Army needs commonality in robots to reduce sustaining costs, help ATEC certification, help small companies compete, reuse technology between programs and platforms, and to respect “secret sauce” IP.
- Robotics development is being aided/advanced by commercial technology. This includes self-driving cars, hobby drones, personal transportation (Uber), and delivery drones.
- There are great opportunities for robotics application in several areas of military operations, particularly where they can provide: (a) Unique Capability (short range recon (SRR) drone, soldier-borne sensor (SBS), small UGVs); (b) Cognitive load reducing (automatically cue potential items of interest, turret auto-tracking); (c) Labor intensive and unchanging (loading ammo); and (d) Risker Missions (CBRNE, robot combat vehicle, breaching robot).
- We are going to have to start viewing robots as expendable based on their contributions to the battlefield.
- You lose the advantage of unmanned vehicles by starting with optionally-manned vehicles. The infrastructure associated with protecting the human in the vehicle is just too high. And, for now and for the foreseeable future, people will be able to drive better than robots.
- There is insufficient Army discretionary funding available at present to sufficiently drive innovation.
SESSION 1: PURSUING ROBOTIC AUTONOMY THROUGH TRANSFORMATION
LTC Stu Hatfield, USA (Ret) – Robotics Branch Chief, Force Development Directorate, Army G-8, stated that:
- Many of the developments that the Army is ushering in to reform its acquisition process are things that the Robotics portfolio area has been doing for many years.
- 2019 is a watershed year for Army robotics with a large number of new starts (6) and with FY20 seeing a large number of these systems getting into soldiers’ hands.
- Funding for the Robotics Portfolio has grown from $20 million in FY14 to $353 in FY20.
- Multiple Army RAS Operational Technology Demonstrations are ongoing: (a) for Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (80 systems deployed to two IBCTs)’ (b) Leader-Follower Technology for Tactical Vehicles (60 systems to two PLS Truck companies); and (d) Next Generation Combat Vehicles (NGCV) / Robotic Combat Vehicle (four RVC-Heavy surrogates in FY20)
- Emerging Robotics S&T development is in the following areas: Interoperability profiles, Modular mission payload integration, Robotic Operating System- Military (ROS-M), Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV), Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T), Autonomous subterranean mapping; and Autonomous ground and aerial supply.
Paul Decker – Deputy Chief Roboticist, U.S. Army Combat Capability Development Command, Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC – formerly TARDEC) Among Mr. Decker’s key points:
- “Bend Virtual Metal First” by increasing the role of modeling and simulation (M&S) and gaming in virtual prototype development. The Army is using increasingly using Soldier Innovation Workshops and Virtual Experiments to inject relevant soldier inputs (e.g., 1st Armored Division, 1st Cavalry Division) into the design work of the Army’s new industrial designers.
- Enhanced Robotic Modularity – Sustainable RAS (MOSA with code reuse) enabled by: (a) Modularity in software (messaging/middleware from an autonomy App Store); (b) modularity in hardware (interoperability profiles and modular mission payloads) and (c) Commonality in controller interface / UCS convergence.
SESSION 2: ADVANCING AUTONOMY: INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVE
Ted Maciuba – Deputy Director, Robotics Requirements, Maneuver Capability Development and Integration Directorate, U.S. Army Futures Command, introduced the following industry speakers
- Carl Conti – Technical Director, Spatial Integrated Systems offered that the biggest challenge facing robotics developers is bridging the gap to the user/warfighter.
- Jeff Schneider – Research Professor, Carnegie Mellon University’s Artificial Intelligence Task Force, formerly of Uber’s autonomous car division, said that Uber has already provided 50,000 unmanned car trips covering 3 million miles. Noted that there is a supply/demand mismatch for programming talent (in part based on hiring restrictions) and that this will make advances a “tough slog.”
- Buck Tanner – Program Director, Combat Vehicle Chief Engineer, BAE Systems, reminded attendees that ground robotics isn’t new. BAE’s forerunner, FMC, fielded the AGVT (Advanced Ground Vehicle Technology) demonstrator nearly 35 years ago in 1985. This was followed by ARL Robotic Demonstrations, DARPA Challenge (2004-2005), and the Autonomous Navigation System within the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. He said that industry access to the customer is a challenge.
- Mack Traynor – Chief Executive Officer, ReconRobotics offered, provocatively, that his small robots — including and especially his Throwbot 2 — are great and could be a lot better if they could actually carry a [smaller-than-is-presently-available] radio. Traynor related that the radio providers say that the customer must provide this direction and he asked aloud why that Army approval isn’t forthcoming. He asserted that radio/controllers should be made available to all prospective robotics solution providers.
SESSION 3: NEXT GENERATION COMBAT VEHICLE (NGCV) & ROBOTIC COMBAT VEHICLE (RCV) UPDATES
COL Warren Sponsler, USA – Deputy Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team (NGCV CFT), U.S. Army Futures Command, related the following:
- The NGCV CFT is working very closely with the robotics requirements communities to get soldier feedback into all systems developments.
- The foremost priority for the NGCV CFT is the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV), where the CFT is taking a realistic, stair-stepped approach to that program.
- The secondary priority of the NGCV CFT is the Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV) family, which has three mission-focused variants/elements: (a) RCV(L) Light (7 tons, primarily for reconnaissance missions); (b) RCV(M) Medium (10 tons – a combat vehicle designed primarily for direct fire); and (c) RCV(H) Heavy (20-30 tons – to provide an unmanned wingman capability for heavy manned platform capable of defeating the Tier 1 threats – FY23 decision node for Abrams tank replacement).
COL Kevin Vanyo, USA -Military Deputy, Combat Capabilities Development Command, Ground Vehicle Systems Center, described three areas of focus:
- Ground Manned Maneuver — The Army’s CoVeR (Combat Vehicle Robotics) program seeks to develop autonomous vehicle mobility technologies to enable military tracked autonomous vehicles to operate in tough military environments at realistic speeds. This allows the Army try out concepts.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) program – man-machine learning focus for dynamic tasking.
- Autonomous maneuver is the long term goal, based on what is learned via the above COVER engineering and AI efforts.
- The Army will hold a Robotics Rodeo (the week of 13 May 2019 in Bryan Texas) to shape system requirements for the upcoming RCV solicitation (award anticipated November 2019 – see below) and is seeking from industry small and medium-sized vehicles for participation.
- The Army’s IR&D focus is looking at adding iterative dynamics behaviors under its COVER program. The Army needs insights to help reduce the cognitive load for soldiers.
LTC Jon St. John, USA – Product Lead Robotic Combat Vehicle, Program Manager NGCV, PEO GCS, related that there are three key areas of learning for the RCV program office as it is defining its system requirements: (a) Developing the Science & Technology (S&T) base to feed the 6.2 and 6.3 R&D project development; (b) Interaction with the warfighter via virtual and then live experiments – probably the most important part; and (c) Engaging directly and iteratively with industry.
SESSION 4: A CONSTELLATION OF MULTI-DOMAIN ROBOTIC CAPABILITIES
Ted Maciuba – Deputy Director, Robotics Requirements, Maneuver Capability Development and Integration Directorate, U.S. Army Futures Command – told conference attendees that it is a very exciting time to be in the business of Army Robotics because: (a) there is an approved requirements document; (b) there is significant funding for robotics; and (c) there is significantly key leader support of robotics. Indeed, Maciuba suggested that “We should snap the chalk line today on robotics…. and five years from now we should have as disruptive a technology fielded as any that have preceded it.”
DoD Robotics program schedule updates provided include:
- Common Robotic System-Individual (CRS-I) – Qinetiq selected for contract award;
- Squad Mission Equipment Transport (SMET) – Currently staffing the Capability Development Document (CCD);
- Soldier-Borne Sensor (SBS) – First Unit Equipped (FUE) in May 2019;
- Short Range Recon (SRR) – Currently working assessment with PEO Aviation’s Program Manager Small Unmanned Aircraft System (PM SUAS) to meet First Unit Equipped (FUE) objective next year in 2020; and
- Currently working the requirements for the following: Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV), Long Range Recon, Universal Robotic Controller, Exoskeleton, Counter SUAS, and Family of Integrated Tactical sensors
Maciuba related his view that the Critical Enabling Technologies for Robotics are: Assured Communications; Autonomy; Soldier/Robotic System Interface; Power & Energy; and, perhaps most importantly, Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI will provide the critical overmatch that US forces need. If the enemy gets there first, US forces will have a problem.
Maciba and other speakers at the event made clear that industry participation in the NAMC (National Advanced Mobility Consortium) is important for full participation in current and emerging robotics programs, including the submission of White Papers and proposals for OTA-related funding under NAMC auspices.
As the following briefing chart illustrates, it is an incredibly busy period at present and ahead for robotics.
SESSION 5: ROBOTICS UPDATES BY SERVICE
COL Johnny Cochran, USA – Deputy Director, Close Combat Lethality Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, is a direct report to the Secretary of Defense to identify must-pursue close combat lethality concepts across the joint force. Colonel Cochran said that while there’s a great deal of interest across DoD in robotics, there’s not a lot of cross-talk and that what he’s looking to engender from the OSD perspective.
CAPT Christian Dunbar, USN – Director, Future Concepts and Innovation within the Naval Special Warfare Command (NSW) suggested that an infantry squad can be 10x better with the application of robotics. He said that Naval Special Warfare and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) are trying hard to work more closely with industry, particularly non-traditional industry players. This includes foundry-type or SOFWERX events, including in Austin, Boston and Tampa, perhaps as often as one monthly.
The Conference, attended by Defense Systems Journal, featured thirteen industry exhibitors, including: Altavian, Defense Mobility Enterprise, Defense Systems Information Analysis Center (DSIAC), FLIR Systems, Ghost Robotics, Harris Corp., Neya Systems, ODU USA, QinetiQ North America, Real-Time Innovations, ReconRobotics, Inc., Shield AI, and Tomahawk Robotics.
Conference sponsors were AV, FLIR (pictured below), HDT, and Qinetiq.