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By Yvonne Headington

23 Dec 10. Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) tend not to attract the kind of attention enjoyed by their airborne counterparts. Yet the potential international UGV market is said to be worth many billions of pounds, with the demand being led by the US, India and Brazil.

Developments within this fast growing sector were explored during the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ (IMEchE) Unmanned Military Vehicle Conference, which took place at the Bristol Marriott on 7th December 2010. Conference chairman, BATTLESPACE editor Julian Nettlefold noted that “……as the potential of UGV develops, procurers will have a better idea of their own requirements and will demand an ever-increasing standard of UGV capability and technology”.

Meeting UK Requirements

Opening the one-day conference Lieutenant Colonel Mark Adams, Assistant Team Leader, DE&S Special Projects Search and Countermeasures (SPSCM) at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), gave a UK perspective on the realities of procuring UGV. The UK’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) fleet currently comprises 350 vehicles in five different types. The most familiar systems are Dragonrunner (QinetiQ) and Wheelbarrow (Remotec UK, Northrop Grumman). Cutlass, also produced by Remotec UK, is believed to be ‘the most sophisticated EOD UGV in the world’ and is set to replace Wheelbarrow in late 2011. Other UGV applications include the Counter-Improvised Explosive Device C-IED Talisman system and the Terrier Engineer Vehicle (which is usually manned but can be operated remotely from a distance of 5,000 metres).

Additional UGV applications are under consideration by the MoD, including: reconnaissance/surveillance; obstacle & route clearance; assisted carriage; base protection/patrol; logistics convoy and casualty evacuation. The MoD hopes to issue requests for Expressions of Interest during 2011 for an (unspecified) Medium Robot requirement.

There has been significant investment in developing robotic capabilities for Iraq and Afghanistan but, “we may well be at the peak of that curve” according to Colonel Adams. Therefore future procurement is most likely to be either commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) or military-off-the-shelf (MOTS). While it is up to the customer to set requirements, much depends on what industry can provide. Colonel Adams added that it is “no good having great ideas if industry isn’t capable of delivering them”.

A number of things can go wrong in the process of managing requirements (that tend toward better versions of existing capabilities) and unrealistic expectations. Any solution needs to satisfy non-equipment ‘Defence Lines of Development’ (DLoD): doctrine/policy (concept of use); training; logistics support and interoperability/integration issues. Above all delivering a robot is about ‘trading’ in terms of size, weight and power.

In Colonel Adam’s view “UGV have real difficulty with the real world” particularly in terms of mobility – both the nature of the operating environment (urban/open terrain) and how the UGV is transported (dismounted soldier/ helicopter). Manoeuvring equipment in challenging surroundings requires skill. The operator may become too focused on the task and thus vulnerable in combat. There is possible “scope for innovation” in applying semi-autonomous tools to assist the operator as well as investigating how virtual training may help. UGV reliability and survivability is paramount. Systems designed for ‘dangerous’ jobs cannot fail on task, resulting in the need for human intervention (either to retrieve the equipment or complete the task).

While there is plenty of room for innovation in the future development of UGV, it is likely that there will always be the need for a “human in the loop”. Ethical issues may arise as the potential for autonomy advances although there appears to be little appetite at present for armed UGV in the UK.

A case study in supplying the MoD with

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