Robots to the Rescue
Roadside bombs in Afghanistan, mines in the Persian Gulf’s shipping lanes, blazing infernos in downtown neighborhoods – danger seemingly lurks around every corner.
Throughout time, the question for military, government and local leaders has been how to make the world safer for troops, sailors, first responders and others in harm’s way. Today, the answer increasingly focuses on unmanned systems that reduce risk by replacing humans on the front lines with machines to conduct perilous resupply, reconnaissance and situational assessment missions.
Unmanned systems have come of age during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, proving their worth time and again. The value of unmanned systems is seen every day in Afghanistan, where they reduce the threats to coalition forces.
According to the Department of Defense (DOD), U.S. casualties in Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) dropped by nearly half in 2012 thanks largely to the decreasing number of troops and improved methods of avoiding and detecting them. However, these home-made bombs still caused 61 percent of the wounds and deaths suffered by U.S. troops last year.
To combat IED and other insurgent threats, DOD has turned to industry to better protect troops, and unmanned systems have played a significant role. Re-supply convoys are one of the U.S.-led coalition’s most hazardous missions. Long lines of trucks, tankers and support vehicles snaking along pockmarked roads present inviting target for insurgents.Keeping Out of Harm’s Way
One innovative system deployed to combat IEDs is the K-MAX unmanned cargo re-supply helicopter developed by Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace. Deployed in 2011, K-MAX has removed well over 600 convoy vehicles from the dangerous Afghani roads.
Marine Maj. Kyle O’Connor commanded K-MAX during its first six-month deployment. His 2013 letter endorsing K-MAX for the prestigious Collier Award describes a harrowing stretch of road known as “ambush alley” with “permanent scorch marks burnt into the earth.”
“We witnessed a number of firsts,” O’Connor wrote. “The most compelling (was) the first time Marine lives were being saved because one of their most dangerous missions was being taken on by an unmanned helicopter. Every piece of cargo flown via (K-MAX) is one piece of cargo that doesn’t need to put personnel in harm’s way going by ground convoy.”
Unmanned systems also offer other benefits. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) provide an invaluable reconnaissance capability that keeps troops out of danger.
Changing Warfare Dramatically
“Unmanned aerial systems have changed warfare significantly. Our forces are now aware of what’s over the next hill before they are put into danger,” said Jay McConville, Lockheed Martin’s Unmanned Integrated Systems business development director. “UAS can perform many missions that required manned assets in the past, and increasingly at a small percentage of the cost. They are also able to safely cover target areas without putting pilots in harm’s way, and do so for long periods of time.”
With their pilots safe behind the front lines, UAS such as Lockheed Martin’s Desert Hawk, Fury, Indago Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) and Stalker Extended Endurance (XE) feature optical, infrared and other sensors that deliver persistent surveillance day or night.
While UAS grab most of the headlines, unmanned ground vehicles and maritime systems are also making inroads. Systems such as Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System lighten soldiers’ loads, improve combat readiness and perform critical re-supply and casualty evacuation missions.
At sea, mines can wreak havoc on shipping lanes. Now, unmanned underwater systems will soon replace the ships that sail into these hazardous waters to clear mines. Featuring an unmanned, autonomous Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle, Lockheed Martin’s Remote Minehunting System will provide the primary mine reconnaissance capability for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Mine Countermeasures Mission Package.
Benefits Back Home
Like other technologies initially developed for the military, unmanned systems also offer benefits back home. Unmanned systems, especially UAS, can perform diverse missions for police, fire, border patrol and others who can use their capabilities.
Indago’s hover and stare reconnaissance capability is ideally suited for police and fire operations in congested urban settings. Stalker’s eight-hour endurance enables it to relay emergency communications and economically search oil pipelines for leaks. Farmers can use UAS to monitor crops for pest infestation and disease and help deliver fertilizer and water.
DARPA’s Robotics Challenge hopes to develop robots capable of assisting disaster response operations, especially in hazardous areas. Lockheed Martin’s entry features a humanoid robot in a state of supervised autonomy, which can complete simple tasks independent of the operator. For jobs requiring greater skill, a remote – largely untrained – operator assists the robot.
“The goal of the [challenge] is to do better, to improve society’s resilience to both natural and man-made disasters,” said DARPA Manager Gill Pratt. “We’re trying to build robots that go where it is too hard for people to go and do what is too hard for people to do, simply because the environment is too hostile.”
November 18, 2013
- U.S. casualties in Afghanistan from IEDs dropped by nearly half in 2012 due to a decreasing number of troops and improved avoidance and detection.
- The K-MAX unmanned cargo re-supply helicopter, deployed in 2011, has removed well over 600 convoy vehicles from the dangerous roads.
- Unmanned systems also help at home performing missions for police, fire, border patrol and others.
DARPA Robotics Challenge
As part of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, Lockheed Martin developing autonomous systems that work together with human operators.