Archive for the ‘Unmanned Systems’ Category

In March, I attended the National Defense Industry Association’s 2010 Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference & Exhibition. If you have not attended one of these NDIA events, they are a great opportunity to witness the give and take between the defense industry, the military’s internal development centers such as the U. S. Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) or the Office of Naval Research, and the in-the-thick-of-it warfighters. As an outsider, it gave me a good sense of the concerns, anxieties, and needs of each group in regards to the expanding role of robotics on the battlefield.

In addition to the presentations, I had the chance to interview a number of figures from industry and government. One such person was Daniel Theobald, President and CTO of Vecna, a high-technology company that offers a range of services and products in the areas of business, healthcare, and robotics. Having graduated at the top of his class at MIT, Theobald has taken on the challenges of artificial intelligence and mobile robotics. He is the inventor of the Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot, or “BEAR,” a unique robot for its use of hydraulics and a humanoid form. Recently, Vecna posted a new video of the BEAR in action:

Theobald was patient enough to sit down with me for an hour and answer my questions. I had planned to cut this into smaller pieces, but I find it all fascinating–so here it is in its entirety.

Erich Simmers: One of the things that struck me as I was looking at the various robotics was that your design was the only one that featured a humanoid design with a face. Both of those are not traditional engineering tasks. What was the internal process that led you to create this BEAR system with a kindly face?

Daniel Theobald: Like any engineering project, it’s an evolution. There’s the initial concept and things will built on each other. One of the things that we knew early on was that we needed bimanual manipulation. You just can’t have a chance of manipulating large, heavy objects without two arms. That was a given. We knew we needed to have a capable mobility platform. If you look at all the existing platforms that are out there, they essentially have two fixed tracks and maybe they have some flippers, but you can’t drive sidewise along a hill without flipping over for instance, so we knew we needed to have this concept of tracked legs that would allow us to operate on any orientation, on any slope, and any terrain. That naturally led to human form, which is kinda interesting. Unlike many, we did not go after the task saying we want to build a humanoid robot. That was never our intention. It was just one of those serendipitous–probably not serendipitous, that form exists for a reason–but the outcome of the engineering was that form. Really, it was here are the tasks and here’s the best form that evolved to address those tasks rather than we want to build a humanoid robot and what can we do with it. The head and the kindly appearance–that’s all after-the-fact. At one point, we came up with the name BEAR, “Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot,” and, of course, hey, we might as well make it look like a bear. We played around with a lot of different looks, and the head is the most changeable part of the robot, too. We can make it look like anything we want anytime, but there was some thought this is supposed to be a robot that’s helping people, so why make a skull-and-crossbone looking thing. Part of the discussion there was around fire rescue. If you are going to send a robot into a burning building to try and get the three-year-old, you don’t want some hideous looking, scary war machine going in there and the kid’s just going to hide under the bed. You want something that’s somewhat comforting looking. Now, does it accomplish that? Who knows. That was the evolution of the whole system.

ES: A defense contractor once told me that–in this case, he was designing small arms–“I always tell my engineers, ‘it’s every bit as important how it looks as how it works.’” Does this tie into the marketing of your product?

DT: Oh sure. It’s kinda sad, but humans like shiny things. You can have the greatest technology, but if it doesn’t look good, you just can’t get the air time in people’s heads to ever make progress. It’s certainly an important consideration. Some people would probably argue we’d get a lot more interest if we made it look like the terminator or something like that. Looks are very important.

ES: In P. W. Singer’s book Wired for War, he quotes various Pentagon insiders who are demanding that unmanned system that looks like the terminator. [Note: In fact, the ole Cyberdyne Systems T-101 would feature prominently in one presenter’s PowerPoint.] Is this something you might attempt for a different application–perhaps, a weaponized BEAR?

DT: We’ve gotten that question all along. Certainly, there are important philosophical issues there to think about very carefully. From my point of view, it’s really hard to distinguish between what part of the conflict you’re involved in. War is a messy business. Hopefully, we’re all in it for the right reasons, which are to protect people who need protection…to make the world a safer place in the end. I won’t get into all the politics, though, because there are a lot of people who think the best answer to war is for it not to exist–and I think we would all agree with that, but you can’t just wish it away. The technology itself–like you’ve probably heard many times–is neither good nor evil; it’s really how the technology is used. All you have to do is to walk yourself through a few scenarios to start to understand. Should we have a weapon on the BEAR? What if you are going into–maybe absurd situation–rescue that three-year-old girl and someone is about to shoot her. You want some way to immobilize that attacker. Is that non-lethal? It is impossible to think of a technology that can never be used to hurt people. If we have a robot that can lift 500 pounds, it can lift 500 pounds and throw a boulder on the bad guy, right? In that sense, weaponized/non-weaponized is an arbitrary distinction. I would of course prefer, as much as possible, that we we’re always using our technology to help people and that happens in many different ways.

ES: One of my personal concerns about unmanned systems is how they look to our friends and enemies. For example, many have criticized the MRAP, because it looks like something out of Star Wars and ends up building barriers between populations. Have you given any thought to how unmanned systems look to, say, a Pashtun tribesman?

DT: I haven’t thought about that a whole lot myself, but communication is very, very important. You communicate in lots of different ways–you communicate visually, through audio. This was one of big challenges in Iraq: really communicating with the people, helping them to understand what we’re trying to accomplish and why they should be working with us rather than fighting against us. It’s a very difficult thing to do, particularly when you have cultural differences and language barriers. People are realizing that this is something we really need to pay attention to, because ultimately that’s how you’re going to win or lose wars–how you communicate with the population. The looks of the equipment is an very important part of it, but I’d say there are even easier things like making sure we have really good translators and you’ve got speakers on that piece of equipment that you can talk to people and say, “no need to fear, this is why we’re here,” whatever it is. People tend to assume the worst in the absence of information. They will always create the worst possible scenario in the absence of information, so our job as the United States and technology providers as well is to make sure our technology can provide information to people, so they are not filling it with misinformation. That’s the most important thing. Whenever you can make the technology that’s going into people’s neighbors and homes not appear like it’s not evil incarnate, you’re going to be much better off. It’s much harder to demonize something that’s clearly trying to help you than hurt you.

ES: Does the proliferation of consumer robots–the Roomba for example–help you in that regard?

DT: Yeah, certainly in the United States there has been a real change in attitude over the past half decade. If you look at the Japanese cartoons through the 80s and the American cartoons as well, it’s really interesting because for most of the American ones the robot is the bad guy coming to attack us and our strong soldiers go fight the robot–most, not all of them. If you look at the Japanese media, the robot is always the good guy fighting off Godzilla, right–fighting off the natural forces. We’ve created this robot to protect us. Then, Americans are always like these robots are going to take us over and they going to destroy civilization. It is a very that we’ve had in the United States, and I think it’s starting to change and things like the Roomba probably help that.

ES: Why do you think there’s a difference? I know the Japanese are one of the leaders in robotics technology.

DT: That’s a good question, and I don’t know that I have a good answer. One of the things I noticed when I was over there a couple of years ago was that they embrace technology at a level that we just don’t here. I’m talking about the general population. Here the kids are into music and video games and iPods and all that. [There,] the gadgets, the robotic toys and that kind of thing! From little kids and to mature, adult men, it’s okay to play with toys like that and they love it and they really get into it. There’s just a different cultural attitude towards technology and playing with it and it being fun. They have a real love for robotics and because of that they view robots as friends not foes.

ES: Have you given any thought to doing an education version of the robot?

DT: We’ve talked about doing a mini-BEAR, a half-sized version of the BEAR. It’s just a matter of funding and what the market would be for that. We started to talk to some universities about purchasing full-sized versions of the BEAR for doing their research. It’s a really interesting research area. Simply nobody has done strong manipulation in a mobile robot. You can use a backhoe and grab logs and move them around, but even there of course you are never manipulating things that weighs more than the platform itself. The platform always has a bigger wheel-base, a strong stability cone if you will. You’re counting on static stability to help you do these tasks. We really are the first ones doing manipulation where you’re manipulating things that are bigger or heavier or more awkward than the platform. This is what humans do every day, but you don’t really think anything of it. We’re lifting that trash can and lifting it to the curb and maybe it weights forty pounds sometimes and we’re balancing it. Most smart people like us just drag them, so that might not be a good example. That same level of controllability and manipulating things that are much heavier and awkward than current platforms can do is a very rich, unexplored area of research that we’re helping to open up.

ES: Why is it that a lot of your competitors are, if anything, dismissive of hydraulics?

DT: There are a number of reasons for that. One is that anytime a new technology comes along–you’ve probably seen the research–it’s always dismissive at first. People don’t understand it. People don’t realize what it’s capability is. Hydraulics–and I should be clear that Vecna has a lot of expertise and hydraulics is only one of them. I want to be careful we don’t be pegged as the hydraulic company. We have got a lot of really excellent work going on–everything from machine vision to planning and controls, advanced autonomy, but clearly hydraulics is one of the really big differentiators, because hydraulics wasn’t a viable technology prior to what Vecna is doing for these applications. If you look at the history, it’s very interesting that there was this hydraulics heyday during World War II where they’re using full hydraulics feedback systems to control the large guns on Navy ships and that type of thing–lots of research going on in hydraulics control–but since then no significant hydraulics research has occurred. Particularly if you look at the numbers as a percentage, it’s beyond nothing. There have been a few openings here and there. The large part of the reason for that is that people have not been happy with tradition hydraulics in terms of the energy efficiency of them the way they were implemented in the fifties–like the energy efficiency of everything was extremely poor. In the fifties, they had less capable working fluids. The oils they used were flammable. When that dive bomber would explode on the deck of the ship, your hydraulic systems would burst and you’ve got this hydraulic fluid burning. Well, we have hydraulic fluids that don’t burn anymore. The other big challenge was really heavy systems. Messy, heavy, inefficient–those were all killers and that’s how people would classify hydraulic systems. When we starting the looking of challenge of building a robot that could lift more than its own weight and do it with lots of degrees of freedom and do it quickly…strength times speed give you power, so that’s why we talk about power rather than just strength. We looked at all the different actuation technologies…all of the latest gearing for electric motors, the exotic stuff–none of which is particularly promising. Ultimately, we said, ‘goodness, all that’s left is hydraulics. We really don’t want to do hydraulics, but that seems to be the only thing that’s left. Let’s actually look at hydraulics and see if we can solve the problems that people complain about. This is when we had that big ‘a-ha.’ Nobody’s done anything in hydraulics for fifty years–of course, the technology is inefficient and heavy and messy. With the science and technology we have today, we could solve these problems with hydraulics and that’s what we’ve done. We have a number of complementary projects that we’re working on right now, but we’ve been able to show that we can achieve about ten times the power density of electromechanical system, we can do it cleanly–no leaks, no drips, no nothing, and we can do it efficiently. We can actually have better efficiently than an electromechanical system depending on the task. We have show that we can, not only do tasks very energy efficiently, but the we can also do energy recovery that you simply can’t do with an electromechanical system.

ES: What would be an example?

DT: Here’s the typical example. Most people realize it takes energy to lift something up. When you put that back down, you can get energy back out of it. The amazing thing is that you would spend exactly as much energy lifting a 50 pound weight as you would a 500 pound weight just because of the way the systems are built. The even more amazing thing is you would take exactly as much energy to put down the 50 pound weight as it would take to lift up the 500 pound weight. Even though you’re taking potential energy out of the system, you’re still drawing a tremendous amount of energy from your batteries. It is just because the way the hydraulic systems were designed. The same is true for most electro-mechanical systems–not to the same extent–but with hydraulics you just have a lot of opportunity for energy efficiency and energy recovery that you just don’t have in these other systems. It is pretty exciting. This technology curve… Lots of people are incredulous about it; lots of people are dismissing it, saying “hydraulics is the past.” Well, everybody is starting to realize we can’t get beyond 80 pounds lift capability with our arm and when you do you can’t really do that with high degree of freedom arms. Now, you have some new arms here showing, which are showing lifting that kind of weight. If you notice, they are only lifting it like this–just a very little bit. For all arms, you have a very high mechanical advantage here. Out here, whole different story. You can lift ten times as much–sometimes even a 100 times as much–in this configuration as you can lift in this configuration. That’s why human beings will lift things this way, but for an EOD robot you don’t have that option. You can’t really be on top of that thing lifting it up. I think there’s a tremendous potential here. By no means would I posit or suggest that a hydraulic arm is the right arm for every application, but I think it’s unavoidable that we’re going to see a significant place for hydraulic arms in mobile robotics. If you want robots to do real work, they need to have real strength and they need to use that strength quickly. That means power density, and the only way to get the power density is hydraulics unless you invent an anti-physics machine. There’s just no denying it. The numbers will not let you do it any other way.

ES: You mentioned one of your other specialties–your vision systems. One of the promo videos I watched showed the ability to recognize aggressive action. Particularly in counterinsurgency environments, how have you overcome some of the difficulties in recognizing aggression in a very complex environment [even for human beings]?

DT: That’s research that’s ongoing and, in many ways, in its early stages. It will be fairly focused on particular kinds of actions. The word aggression is probably not the right word. It’s being able to recognize certain activities. For instance, if you put a robot or a persistent stare device (these leave-behind sensors they talk about), you drop one down. You might want to be watching a road and it would be able to tell the difference between from people who are walking by versus someone who’s digging. It’s that digging motion we can recognize. Or being able to pick somebody who’s sighting a weapon as a difference from someone pointing or talking to someone else. There’s very specific actions that would be suspicious in this particular environment. Anytime someone’s digging in a road you can be pretty darn sure they’re planting a bomb there. That the approach there. We’re really fortunate that we have top notch vision researchers that can do things that were not possible even five years ago.

ES: How do these sensors discriminate particularly when you have very difficult rules of engagement? I heard one example of a patrol in Afghanistan where they could fire at an insurgent when he looking through his sights at them but when he would put his weapon down and look with binoculars they were not allowed to fire. Is there a way that the sensors can discriminate between those two similar [gestures]?

DT: That’s a good question. I’m sure given the time and the focus on that particular requirement that it would be very doable. You know, discriminating weapons from non-weapons is a fairly well defined task. Weapons have certain characteristics that other objects don’t in general, but the reality is that we’ll always, almost certainly have humans in the loop making the final decisions. I am not at all an advocate of robots being able to use lethal force–particularly without a human being making the final decision. It’s really hard. I don’t know if you have ever looked through one of these teleconferencing systems or teleoperating systems. To actually have a sense of what’s going on is extremely difficult through one of these systems. You can invent all kinds of examples. Maybe, someone is pointing a gun and it looks like they’re pointing the gun at the robot, but they’re really pointing the gun at the terrorist who is about to kill a kid who’s behind the robot. Do you take that guy out? No, that would be the wrong thing to do. No easy answers there.

ES: There’s one example I read about a CRAM System that mistook an Iranian passenger liner for a fighter plane. What struck me about that particular example was that from the lowest level operator of the system to the CO of the ship they deferred to the machine’s…well, word essentially.

DT: Sometimes, we trust technology way too much, yeah. It’s a real problem, because people will grow comfortable and will defer those type of decisions, but we really need to have good training to say if you haven’t laid eyes on it yourself or have some independent third-party confirmation I wouldn’t be trusting technology to make those kind of calls. Now, you know, the technology will get better and better, but any time you’re thinking about taking an action that is going to result in the loss of life I think we need to have several layers of checks and re-checks to ensure that the right action is being taken at the right time.

ES: In one of the other promotional videos, there’s a tease: “next episode, we drop the BEAR behind enemy lines.” This sounds like a special forces application to me. In what ways do you envision the BEAR serving SOCOM?

DT: One of the very realistic missions for a robot like a robot like the BEAR would be in a hostage situation, for instance, where it simply doesn’t make sense to put further life at risk. You know, suicide mission type of stuff. Chances are if you send a team in there they’re going to end up additional casualties and in addition to the likely casualties of the hostages. You think about actually being able to send in a robot that has the ability to bust through doors, move obstacles out of the way, and use force as necessary and then be able to rescue somebody. You need a robot that has the strength to do that stuff. A big key there is being able to operate in an urban environment inside buildings. This is one of the real keys of the BEAR. Why does the BEAR have a humanoid form and such a small footprint? It can drive around on its track ends. Most of the time you wouldn’t do that–most of the time you have it in a low post, but the reason why is so that it can navigate around human environments. That’s the real challenge. Some of the robots you see here can’t, but they also don’t have the strength to do what needs to be done in that type of scenario. We have tried to pack as much capability and power into as small a package as possible, so when you need them you’ll have them available.

ES: What are some ways you plan to reduce the size and weight of the system?

DT: There is lot of opportunities to reduce the weight. The size is really based on what mission you want. We could easily make a version of the BEAR that’s smaller, but for the tasks that we’re considering right now we think six-foot is just about right. In these current versions, we’ve made no significant effort at weight reduction. It has been a technology demonstrator, so it weights significantly more than it needs to. If you look at our black hydraulic arm there, that’s all carbon fiber, super light, and ultra strong–we would utilize all those same approaches to make an ultralight version of the BEAR, but the BEAR already is the most power dense humanoid robot by far and we can increase that significantly.

ES: At the conference, they’ve talked a lot about open architecture. As a contractor, is this something that’s threatening in terms of diminishing your capability to differentiate yourself.

DT: Whether standardization harms or hurts you really depends on where you are in the market at that time. This is the classic argument of the Apple and the IBM approach–back in the day. At business school, we did a case study on that to understand that very issue. Ultimately, I really believe that open architectures are the right thing and, in the long term, benefits everybody. There are times when coming in with a completely packaged customized solution is the right answer as well, though. It is hard to talk about in the abstract. You have to get into the particular problem you’re trying to solve. I believe in competition, and it’s hard to have real competition without standardization. It’d be nice if there’s a standard interface so that you can plug in an arm from vender A or plug in vender B; plug in navigation unit from vender A or B. I think that’s the ideal that would be nice to achieve. Ultimately there’s lots of forces at work here. We’ve got the economics, industrial side; we’ve got the government. I think we’re going to make a lot of progress in that area–we’ll see. Ultimately, it helps a company like Vecna, because it provides opportunities to get in and provide value without having to provide a complete, integrated solution. Those spots are already taken. You probably wouldn’t want to compete in that space.

ES: Among different contractors across the defense industry, the persistent anxieties I have heard have been “I’m too small of a vender” and “people running these requests for proposals are too preoccupied with risk aversion to bet on a new player or a system that’s, perhaps, too much of a deviation from the norm.”

DT: And they’re not engineers, typically, and they don’t have the expertise to make those decisions. Not necessarily in robotics but in our other business areas, we have been told that as a risk aversion tactic we’re going to go with this big guy, and if you actually look at the statistics, failure rates for projects are off the charts with the big guys in this particular area where we have a 100% success rate. People tend to think of risk in funny ways. You’ve heard the old adage “no one gets fired for hiring IBM,” right? It’s not the success or failure of it; it’s “oh, you made a reasonable decision, it wasn’t your fault when it didn’t go right.” It’s a real important question: how can we increase the success rate of these government projects? In an earlier session, they mentioned the failure rate of large system projects and its staggering to think about how much money has resulted in a scrapped program.

ES: It seems like there has been a rash of those lately.

DT: It’s been that way forever–since the beginning. Sometimes, it’s a little frustrating, but that’s just the way it is. We look at it and say, “Boy, for the scrap that fell off that table, what could we accomplish?” It just takes time and you do good work and talk to people, and hopefully sometime you get a break to get that technology into the warfighter’s hands to do some good.

ES: It seems like the open architecture is a push back from the system of systems approach.

DT: People say things like, “The vendors are taking advantage.” I’ve even hear people talk about profiteering and that kind of thing, and it’s tough. These businesses have put a lot of money and investment in and their shareholders want a profit–that’s the way it works, and that’s understandable. From the government’s side, they think, “goodness gracious, it takes $20 to build this component; why are they charging me $500?” That’s distasteful for everybody who’s a tax payer. Where’s the right trade off?–it’s hard to say. From our perspective at Vecna, we have maintained independence. We have no outside investors or shareholders, so that gives us a lot of flexibility to try to do the right thing and not have to worry about meeting our quarterly numbers. That’s not to say we’re not for profit. We absolutely are, but we’re much more interested in really making a positive difference in the world and when we make a difference we’ve earned some financial reward. It’s not just about how can we get money out of the government or consumers to pay our investors; that’s never been what its about for us. We’re much more interested in solving really hard engineering problems that actually make a positive impact on the world, and as we do that effectively and do make a difference we’ll get some payback financially as well. That’s the icing on the cake for us.


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The introduction of unmanned systems is one of–if not the most–significant cultural shift in the military today.  In “Air Force looks to keep more pilots grounded,” Sig Christenson provides some insight into this shift:

The top Air Force flight school students often get the best shot at the hottest planes.

But instead of listing the A-10 Warthog as the first choice on her “dream sheet” of planes she’d like to fly, 2nd Lt. Raquel Dronenburg picked the plane virtually everyone else in her class of 22 had hoped to avoid — the one that will never have room for a pilot in the cockpit.

“I wanted to actually do something productive with my time instead of sitting around and waiting for training to start,” said Dronenburg, one of the top students in the class, explaining that flying a manned aircraft meant delays that could run 15 months.

Pilots typically want to fly in the air, not from a ground-based cubicle. That’s why Monday’s graduation from the Air Force’s Unmanned Aerial System Fundamentals course, the first of its kind at Randolph AFB, was so remarkable.

It marks a shift in the Air Force’s culture. The service’s center of gravity has always been the pilot wrapped in a cockpit, engaged in mortal combat, but technology and insurgent warfare are driving big changes.

John Pike, director and founder of globalsecurity.org, a military information Web site, called the cultural change “fundamental, radical and revolutionary” — striking at the heart of how the Air Force sees itself.

“They’ve spent most of the 20th century celebrating Eddie Rickenbacker,” Pike said, referring to the renowned World War I fighter pilot. “It’s a fighter pilot’s service. Those are the heroes, those are the ones that get promoted to general. It’s a real challenge to their culture.”

I would have thought “Dronenburg” was a pseudonym, but I managed to find her profile on Facebook. Facebook? Unmanned system operator? No doubt, 2LT Dronenburg is an example of a this generation’s warfighter.

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