while he’s doing that, other soldiers are protecting him,” Piekarski points out.
Now, however, the service is developing small robotic systems through the traditional requirements process, which
takes longer but aims for more mature, more capable systems.
“There hasn’t been an Army program of record, and that’s
starting to happen. The requirements documents are starting
to be written and published, and they should be out soon,” says
Piekarski, who also serves as the cooperative agreement manager, Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST)
Collaborative Technology Alliance.
For example, researchers at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier
Research, Development and Engineering Center are developing a pocket-size aerial surveillance device for soldiers and
small units operating in challenging ground environments.
The Cargo Pocket Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance program (CP-ISR) seeks to develop a mobile soldier
sensor to increase situational awareness for dismounted troops
by providing real-time video surveillance of threat areas within
their immediate operational environment.
Additionally, the Army Capabilities Integration Center and
the Maneuver Center of Excellence are developing the Common Light Autonomous Robotics Kit (CLARK). The overall
intent is to provide squads a set of small remotely controlled
or semiautonomous robots that provide the ability to conduct
close reconnaissance and to investigate potential threats from
safe distances. The CLARK will be designed as a family of
small robotic systems, packaged together in an assault pack or
other small carrying case.
The CLARK will provide a variety of tactical intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance options for the dismounted
squad. It will include a semiautonomous ultralight reconnaissance robot for ground reconnaissance, an unattended
ground sensor to provide stationary persistent surveillance
and an autonomous micro-unmanned aerial system to provide an immediate tactical reconnaissance capability where
effective use of the ground-constrained ultralight system may
The CP-ISR and the CLARK come closer than current
systems to meeting the vision of the MAST program, a part-
nership between ARL and universities to develop miniature
robotic systems. “The goal is for something that fits in the
palm of the hand, so think of them as weighing 100 grams or
less, something the soldier can fit in his cargo pocket or ruck-
sack. He can take it out and deploy it rapidly to provide infor-
mation about the environment around him,” Piekarski states.
ARL does not intend to develop a specific system. Its
task instead is to develop technologies and capabilities that
advance systems built by others. MAST researchers have
made significant progress, and their accomplishments may
help fuel the new programs of record, Piekarski indicates.
Sensor technology, for example, has progressed significantly,
primarily with improved processing power allowing for
ever smaller devices. The research team has demonstrated
autonomous flight in environments with and without Global
Positioning System availability. Additionally, researchers
now better understand how small systems interact with the
environment and do seemingly simple tasks, such as using
appendages to aid mobility.
Ideally, future platforms will possess greater levels of autonomy than current tele-operated systems. Autonomy, however,
requires more sensors, which presents a challenge for smaller
drones. Piekarski indicates that one platform could require
optical sensors, radar, sensors for detecting wind gusts and
navigation measurement systems, such as gyros and accelerometers. One system will need enough sensors and algorithms and intelligence to sense its own orientation within
the environment and will need to be capable of sensing direction; detecting a building; detecting specific features, such as
an open window; and then be capable of navigating to and
through the building on its own. “It may be in a frontier mode
or exploration mode where it can go into a building and provide a map and information about any threats. It could either
be soldier directed, or it could be somewhat autonomous,”
How soon micro-size robots will be fielded depends largely
on the definition of “micro.” “Micro might be a misnomer,”
Piekarski confesses. “We can do a lot of this now on larger
scale, commercial platforms. It may not be a robust solution
that we can use in the field, but we can demonstrate a lot of
capabilities that we want on something that weighs a kilogram
or slightly larger,” he says, adding that a system likely could be
fielded in about five years with sufficient funding.
Even smaller systems, of course, will take longer. “To get
it down to a sub-100-gram system that has all of those capabilities, I think we’re probably talking five to 10 years out, at
least,” he says.
Some of ARL’s research involves biological systems—insects
and reptiles, for example—and how they might benefit future
robotic systems (SIGNAL Magazine, August 2010, page 39,
“Army Plans Swat Teams...”). “I would not say we’re trying to
mimic any particular insect or animal. We have looked at how
biological systems, whether they be lizards or cockroaches or
various types of flies, handle the environment, what they use
for controls. An insect has a very small processing capability.
It has very noisy, small sensors, yet it has a robust flight control
system for avoiding obstacles, such as your hand, if you try to
catch a fly,” Piekarski explains.
Researchers study insects to see what kinds of control algorithms they employ, how they maneuver or how they detect
ARL researchers envision the use of spatially distributed, multimodal,
wide-field sensing based on the neurophysiology of insects for
enabling navigation and obstacle avoidance on micro aerial robots.