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AUVSI: Robotics rodeo branches out with new challenges, demonstrations

A 10-day 'rodeo' saw a round-up of the latest robots and hi-tech equipment at Fort Benning, USA, allowing the hosts to instantly assess their capabilities and collect technical data

Some 44 companies from around the USA and beyond brought their wares to Georgia's Fort Benning from 20-29 June, putting them through their paces in a series of challenges sponsored by the US Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

"A lot of the technology we have seen has been product improvement, and I think a good [example] of what we do with industry," says Eddie Davis, deputy director of the Army's Maneuver Battle Lab, which helped to create the trial. He spoke at the conclusion of the event, on the 29 June media day. "We look at technology here with soldiers and find improvements that need to be made."

Overall, 74 technologies from 44 companies and five universities took part, either in the challenges or by setting up displays at the event. Most were from the USA, although Turkey's top defence contractor, Aselsan, brought its new Kaplan ground vehicle, the first time it has shown the system outside its home country.

It was the third year for the rodeo, but with some differences from previous events. TARDEC and JIEDDO scripted tactical situations where the vendors could demonstrate their abilities.

"The difference this year from previous years is we focused on specific tactical events," says Harry Lubin, chief of the experimental branch at the Battle Lab. "An example would be, occupy a battle position. Can a robot come in and actually dig out initial battle positions before a soldier gets there?"

That particular demonstration - sponsored by TARDEC - also caught the eye of Davis and Jim Parker, associate director for ground vehicle robotics at TARDEC, who mentioned it in briefings during media day.

That demonstration was carried out by QinetiQ North America, which used its bolt-on robotics kit to turn a stock Bobcat front-end loader into a remotely operated vehicle. The company rented the Bobcat from a local vendor and installed its teleoperation kit on site, says Charlie Dean, QinetiQ North America's director of business development. The company completed the task in 89min, a minute shy of the deadline.

That vignette was named Corral, with the theme of "set up, deploy and relocate". TARDEC's second vignette was named Gunslinger, with the theme "protect" - the robot had to identify hostile activity in an area and then acquire and track moving targets. The third was named Wagon Train, aimed at autonomously moving and unloading support equipment for soldiers.

TARDEC also hosted the CANINE competition, which stands for Collaborative Autonomous Navigation with Interactive Networked Engagement, which was intended to show how a robot could bring back a tool or other piece of equipment to an isolated unit - in other words, to fetch like a dog.

Robotic Research was named the winner of that competition, which consisted of six increasingly difficult challenges where the operator could communicate with the robot only by gesture or voice. Robotic Research was the only team to use voice commands, which the company said gave it an edge because more complex commands could be sent.

Parker says the key advantage of the rodeo is the participation of soldiers, who can evaluate the systems in something resembling their actual day-to-day use.

While TARDEC sponsored what he called "operational vignettes," JIEDDO "had more specific, tailored events", Parker says. "We were collecting both technical data, and we also had soldiers participating and writing down their assessments as they see a new piece of equipment perform. This is another opportunity for us to use that equipment in another way."

JIEDDO programme integrator Matt Way says the agency had 23 technologies from 18 vendors, which made it through its four challenges that focused on endurance, detection, disruption and reconnaissance.

The rodeo "allows us to communicate in a physical means what our problem set is", says Way, adding that the agency is still "crunching the data" from the events and will meet with the vendors to discuss the results.

JIEDDO posted results from its challenges, highlighting the top performers in each. However, Way and other officials say the purpose of the rodeo was not to name winners and losers, but to let companies demonstrate their capabilities. The companies that participated had to pay their own way.

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