Army turns to open architecture to plot its future in robotics

Thursday - 8/14/2014, 9:34am EDT

The Army's emerging strategy for buying and modernizing its ground based robotics systems relies heavily on open architectures, open standards and open source software.

The service thinks unmanned ground vehicles have a bright future in ground warfare, and their use has already blossomed significantly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service deployed an estimated 7,000 robotic systems to operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom for everything from reconnaissance to explosives disposal and route clearance missions.

But going forward, the Army also sees a future of budget constraints and the need for systems that can be rapidly adapted to changing missions and new technology.

So to keep costs down and maximize flexibility, the service is employing a strategy that emphasizes open architectures, reusable, interchangeable components and common, publicly defined interfaces between individual subsystems, said Heidi Shyu, the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

"I think in the near term, our strategy is going to be to leverage a common chassis and allow the evolution of the payloads to occur. Because the payload technology is what evolves very rapidly. We don't want to buy a chassis that requires us to hold on to one camera for ten years. Then you're completely obsolete," she told a robotics conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association in College Park, Maryland, Wednesday. "We need to leverage commercial industry to evolve those payloads. If we establish common interfaces, it will allow us to do that, to have new arms, new cameras, new sensors that can plug-and-play. In the near term, that's exactly what we're doing."

One significant employment of the strategy, which Shyu formally approved last week, will be the replacement of the Army's TALON system, which is nearing the end of its service life. A full-fledged successor, increment two of the Man Transportable Robotic System (MTRS) isn't expected to be fully deployed until 2021. It will enforce a set of open standards and interfaces the Army is adopting, but a "bridging strategy" will also insist on the use of open architectures and technology reuse, while the Army fields intermediate systems in the meantime.

"[MTRS] will address several shortfalls in our current capability, namely the need for a common chassis that supports multiple payloads, which will reduce sustainment costs, logistics footprint and integration risks," she said. "This vehicle will leverage an open architecture framework as opposed to the current closed system, which lacks government purpose rights and a common upgrade path. But the first phase of MTRS development seeks to leverage the existing TALON chassis while upgrading the system's sensors and payload capacity. We're working with our industry partners to develop a standard architecture, which will enable us to incorporate future capabilities rapidly."

Shyu says the Army will be releasing more details on the robotics plan she just approved very soon. She said vendors will be seeing information not just about the acquisition strategy, but the open standards the Army is adopting and will use for the acquisitions.

"The architectural standard was worked in conjunction with industry. It wasn't something we just thought up ourselves and threw up on the table," she said. "And the plug-and-play interface will be provided to industry to enable competition."

The Army has been working since 2011 to build what it calls the Unmanned Ground Vehicle Interoperability Profile (IOP), a collection of both hardware and software standards that will define how individual subsystems like radios and cameras within a robotic system communicate with one another, plus the hardware specifications those components will need to meet.

The first version of the still-evolving standard set aimed to document all of the interfaces in the systems the service already owns in an effort to break them down into discrete, identifiable modules. The latest version of IOP, which has been undergoing work for the last six months, focuses primarily on creating the open interfaces needed to convert manned systems into unmanned ones, said Mark Mazzara, the Army's systems coordinator for robotics.

"Since our priority has been on modularity up until now, once we get the modularity piece defined, we'll start focusing more on interoperability, meaning external interoperability," he said. "That's interoperability, for example, between a robot and a manned ground vehicle or between a ground robot and a mobile handheld device, an unmanned aerial system, maybe geospatial models or intelligence databases. You can you a lot of those external interfaces to enable better autonomy."

Eventually, Mazzara says, as the entire military makes more and more use of unmanned systems, the Army would like its interoperability model to evolve into a single set of open standards that all of the military services will use to connect their robotic systems to one another, on the ground, in the air and under the sea.