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MILITARY TECHNOLOGY (MILTECH) is the world's leading international tri-service defence monthly magazine in the English language. MILITARY TECHNOLOGY is "Required Reading for Defence Professionals". Follow us on Twitter: MILTECH1

15 May 2014

AUVSI 2014: RUAG’s Robots, UGVs and New Ways of Radio Communication

In the early 1920s, the Czech playwright Karel Capek coined the word “robot,” using it to describe a human like machine which could operate with a limited degree of autonomy to relieve its masters of dangerous, dirty, boring or repetitive tasks. Regardless of the complexity of the task, the robot would repeat a job until told to stop, completing it faster and more efficiently than a human.

RUAG’s ROBOSCOUT UGV system follows the same path that UAS are using: Satellite-based Broadband Communication on the Move. In this approach, satellites are used as relay stations for the radio communication between the operator/man in the loop and the UGV, regardless of whether they are separated by ten or ten thousand kilometres. (Photo: RUAG)

It took over half a century to realise Capek’s vision of smart machines which could autonomously perform complex sequences of actions as a function of varying sensor inputs. The key pre-requisite before any such systems could be developed was the development of specialized sensors, powerful digital computers and sophisticated software. Only then could the development of machines which could be genuinely useful servants of mankind begin. Today, robots are indispensable elements in the production process of many goods, mostly as stationary installations in buildings with little or no public access.

In contrast to their increasing presence in the “indoor” environment in manufacturing plants, robots are, with very few exceptions, not yet employed in the “outdoor” world as UGVs. Despite the fleets of vehicles and equipment operated both in the civil sector, in construction, transport or farming industries, and in the defence sector, there are no UGVs among the fleets of bulldozers, trucks, vans, harvesters, jeeps or fighting vehicles which would be permitted to use public roads in the same way in which manned ground vehicles operate on them. The key reason for this is that the present state of the art with regard to UGVs does not provide scientists and engineers with the confidence to guarantee that even the most modern UGV’s,

  • Will never run out of control, harming people and damaging objects whilst disregarding all internal and external commands to return to an appropriate mode of operation;
  • Will, when operating in Autonomous mode, always move and operate in accordance with the rules programmed into it. In this mode, an unmanned vehicle has to rely on internal decision making, using a ‘sense and avoid’ approach to simulate the operation of a manned vehicle which obeys traffic regulations; and
  • Can always be kept under remote control via communication links, regardless of whether the UGV is in line of sight of its operator or hundreds of kilometres away in a deep valley.
The questions, then, are these: where does UGV-technology stand today and which new technologies should be developed to realise the potential for robots to operate outside, and become integral parts of the traffic on public roads? To answer these two questions, we must begin with a key assumption: of the three basic modes of UGV operation, namely Autonomy, Remote Control and Supervised Autonomy, the latter will be the mode of choice in the near to mid-term. This is because it offers the desired autonomous operation of an UGV, but retains “a man in the loop” who can assume command over the UGV via remote control should the UGV disobey the programmed rules of action or become the victim of a hostile attack.

There are currently few UGV demonstrators and prototypes in the 2t plus weight category. Those that there are, which are demonstrated at events like the ELROB, are generally based on COTS SUVs which have been converted to UGVs by installing a kit consisting of sensors, computers, actuators and communication equipment. As the construction industry and the military procure UGVs over the next few years to reduce the risk for drivers in dangerous environments, this seems to indicate the likely technical approach which will be adopted: that of taking an off the shelf vehicle and install a type certified UGV-kit.

Various industries and RUAG are all marketing or developing such equipment sets. These kits have two things in common: First, their mode of operation is Supervised Autonomy with a very high degree of remote control and, second, the radio range of the remote control/communication equipment is only a few kilometres.

Accepting that industry has not yet successfully opened the way for UGVs to operate in the outdoor environment, it is then important to identify technologies in which we must invest if we are to substantially widen the employability of UGVs in such conditions.

RUAG with its ROBOSCOUT UGV system has already shown the way ahead, following the same path that UAS like PREDATOR and GLOBAL HAW are using: Satellite-based Broadband Communication on the Move. In this approach, satellites are used as relay stations for the radio communication between the operator/man in the loop and the UGV, regardless of whether they are separated by ten or ten thousand kilometres.

If such broadband communications are to be fully exploited for manned as well as for unmanned vehicles “on the move,” the missing element is an electronic UGV-antenna with similar directivity to that offered by parabolic dish antennas, and which will not lose contact with its radio relay station in the sky when the UGV drives over rough terrain. What is needed are mass production phased array antennas (smart antennas, flat antennas), whose direction of regard can be changed electronically and without time delay. This ensures continuity of operation when a UGV is traversing rough terrain and constantly changing its position in relation to the satellite being used to relay messages. Investment in appropriate phased array antennas will accordingly be critical as we determine how to expand the role of UGVs in the civil and military world.

To summarise, it is not possible for UAVs or UGVs to operate unconstrained by rules in our highly populated world. The man in the loop is the key to Supervised Autonomy but, to ensure that he can provide effective control, he must always know the Unmanned Vehicle’s position and its direction of travel, as well as having access to both its sensor data and system health. If he is to maintain access to all of this data, a powerful and reliable communication link, proof against interrogation, jamming or spoofing, is essential. The best tool for achieving this is the already proven technology of Satellite Based Broadband Communication on the Move, combined with phased array antennas.

RUAG is an international technology group for aerospace and defence. The head office is in Bern (Switzerland). RUAG has production sites in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Sweden and in the USA. RUAG employees 7,700 staff worldwide, of which 5,000 are in Switzerland, including 10% trainees.

RUAG and General Dynamics Land Systems-Mowag (GDELS) have teamed on a project to expand the mission capabilities of the EAGLE IV vehicle by introducing the retrofittable vehicle robotics kit called VERO. VERO enables vehicle teleoperation and provides operators with the capability to conduct either manned or unmanned operations, depending on the situation and threat. The system includes a Multi Purpose Sensor (MPS) head from Sagem, which provide day and night reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities while manned or unmanned. (Photo: RUAG)

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