AUVSI: Transformers: Robots in disguise

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By Rich Tuttle

Although the idea of using unmanned vehicles to remove wounded soldiers from the battlefield isn't likely to translate soon to an operational system, companies around the world are tapping into the market. And if the USA is lagging in coming to the battlefield extraction fold, a little funding could go a long way in an industry ripe to boom.

If the country is going to make a commitment to do this, it needs a comprehensively funded program to capitalize on a range of relatively low-level research and technology projects that have been under way for years in various government and industry labs, says Gary Gilbert, head of the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

DEVELOPING CAPABILITIES

"We need the country to say - the Department of Defense to say - 'Yes, we're going to do this in the future. We're going to build a program to develop these capabilities, to identify what the technical requirements and the operational requirements are to be able to do this,'" says Gilbert.

TATRC is in the forefront of unmanned casevac, or casualty evacuation, but, says Gilbert, "I've gone about as far as I can go with the kind of funding I have," which is mostly to develop prototypes and fund Small Business Innovation Research grants.

darpa transformer aircraft concept, darpa
 © DARPA

But, he says, it's a worthy endeavor. "Why expose soldiers or medics to risk if you can do some of this stuff with robots? Especially given the fact that we lose the soldier and the casualty sometimes - both guys get killed. So if we can reduce the exposure of two soldiers to maybe just one-and-a-half, or one soldier and a robot, we can save some lives. That's what we're trying to do."

PROMISING EFORTS

A challenge for potential designers of unmanned casevac systems, in addition to money, is the US military's position that no wounded soldier will be sent from one location to another without someone in attendance.

AAI (booth 1000), maker of unmanned aerial systems like the Shadow, is broadening its interest in the UAS field and would be able to meet this demand, according to Steven Reid, vice president of unmanned aircraft systems. AAI has signed a licensing agreement with a company called Carter Aviation, giving AAI exclusive rights to a Carter idea known as slowed rotor/compound technology. SR/C, according to AAI, is "a fixed- and rotary-wing hybrid that [delivers] high-speed, long endurance and vertical/short takeoff and landing capability at low cost." Any proposal for an unmanned casevac aircraft that AAI submitted would be based on a Carter passenger-carrying aircraft, Reid says. Airworthiness standards for an unmanned vehicle, he says, would thus be identical to those for a manned aircraft.

Military officials have nevertheless expressed concern about the consequences if unmanned vehicles crash. Advocates of unmanned casevac counter that it's almost always better to attempt a rescue.

In fact, some say the requirement that a wounded soldier must always be accompanied is outdated because of advances in technology. "This has nothing to do with science. It has to do with politics and the sociology of patient care," says Richard Satava, professor of surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

Satava, who served as a combat surgeon and at DARPA, helped develop the Life Support for Trauma and Transport (LSTAT) system, basically an intensive care unit with full telemedicine capability that can be taken to the battlefield. The US military began using it in 2000, and it remains in service today.

LSTAT was taken a step further when it was used in a 2008 demonstration of an operating room with no people, not even a surgeon, according to Satava. Using a daVinci surgical robot, developed by DARPA in the 1990s, researchers showed that animals could be successfully operated on with no one in the operating room.

A follow-on effort was intended to show that this setup could be made small enough to fit into a pod that could be carried by unmanned aircraft. The idea, proposed to DARPA in 2005, was that the aircraft could be used to transport supplies to troops and take wounded soldiers out on the way back. Researchers determined relevant parameters so that future developers of unmanned helicopters or vertical takeoff and landing UAS would know what was needed for such medical systems as power and oxygen, according to Satava.

He favors unmanned air evacuation over unmanned ground evacuation, which would be for relatively short distances anyway. Air is "less vulnerable, it's quicker and it's direct." Others say it'll be a while before people are willing to climb onto an unmanned aircraft. The idea of transporting casualties in unmanned aircraft was called Nightingale, but it never got past the concept stage.

DARPA's new Transformer, or TX, project has echoes of Nightingale.

Its goal is prototype development of a kind of flying car that would take soldiers over any kind of terrain. There would be an unmanned version.

AAI is one of a number of companies bidding on TX. Its team members include Carter Aviation and Terrafugia, which is developing a roadable light sport aircraft. AAI also is working with Boston Dynamics on DARPA's Legged Squad Support System, or LS3, a sort of robotic pack mule that would carry heavy loads for soldiers. Many of the technologies used in unmanned aircraft are used in LS3, according to AAI's Reid.

Another hurdle for designers of unmanned casevac systems is that there's no firm US military requirement. But this may be coming, as evidenced by studies under way in places like US Joint Forces Command and the Army's Training and Doctrine Command.

Unmanned casevac may also benefit from TX, as well as from a Marine Corps effort to develop an unmanned helicopter for resupply. Lockheed Martin is teamed with Kaman to demonstrate an unmanned version of the K-Max helicopter for this job, and Boeing has shown how its unmanned A-160 Hummingbird could do the mission. "If they could get resupply working, they could do probably something with a casualty evacuation system," says Larry Dickerson of Forecast International.

ANOTHER WAY IN

Advocates of unmanned casevac could get a further boost from a planned demonstration in Afghanistan early next year of Lockheed Martin's autonomous Squad Mission Support System (SMSS), developed by the company to lighten the load of soldiers and Marines. It can carry 544kg (1,200 pounds) of gear for a nine- to 13-person squad, according to Lockheed Martin (booth 614). Don Nimblett, senior business development manager for unmanned systems at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, says the plan is for the Army to evaluate four of the vehicles for three months in Afghanistan.

lockheed martin
 © Billypix

He predicts a decision during that period to evacuate a soldier on an SMSS. "I think they may put him up on the vehicle and tell it to go back to some point, and another soldier will walk along with him to make sure he's safe."