Medical Robotic Technologies Take a Step Closer to the Battlefield
How do you rescue wounded Soldiers under fire without losing more lives? One answer may be the BEARTM (Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot), which would be used to recover a wounded soldier and bring him or her back to where a combat medic could safely conduct an initial assessment. A motion-capture glove or specially equipped rifle grip would allow a warfighter to control the robot remotely while still carrying out his or her other tasks.
These technologies have been tested together over the past year by Soldiers at the U.S. Army Infantry Center Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, Ga.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center has helped fund the development of Vecna Technologies' humanoid BEAR, and has funded integration of AnthroTronix's iGlove and M4 rifle grip controller into the Fort Benning testing. Dr. Gary Gilbert, who manages TATRC's medical robotics portfolio, said the assessments provide a key link between research and actual robots that can be used in the field.
"Our goal with the Battle Lab testing is to get the technology in the hands of the Soldiers, either through simulations or live exercises, and derive from their feedback what tactics, techniques and procedures are appropriate for deploying it," explained Gilbert. "These TTPs can then serve as the basis for developing real world operational capability needs and requirements. It's only once we know how we'll successfully use these technologies that you'll see them put into the field."
A computer simulation of the BEAR was created in 2009 for use in the Battle Lab's OneSAF (One Semi-Autonomous Forces) combat operations simulator. An initial series of platoon level assaults and clearing operations in both wooded and urban terrain were executed in OneSAF, including casualty extractions using both conventional litter rescues and rescues with the BEAR. The AnthroTronix remote control systems were integrated with the simulation in December 2009. In June 2010, the BEAR and AnthroTronix controllers underwent live characterization studies with Soldiers observing their capabilities in both urban and wooded terrain.
The BEAR is a multimodal, high degree of freedom robot that can reach out with its hydraulic arms to lift and carry up to 500 pounds; complete fine motor tasks with its hands and fingers; maneuver with a dual-track system; stand up and balance; and use cameras and sensors. It gained national media attention when it was featured in Time Magazine's Best Inventions of 2006. Successive versions have increased its capabilities. While the initial control of the BEAR is via a remote human operator, work is underway for more complicated semi-autonomous behaviors in which the robot understands and carries out increasingly higher-level commands.
AnthroTronix's iGlove gesture recognition device can control robots remotely through simple hand signals. The Mounted Force Controller is a robot controller device that can be mounted on an M4 rifle so a soldier does not have to put down his or her weapon to use the device. The iGlove is a low-cost, universally compatible control device that has been available commercially since 2009 as the AcceleGloveTM. The company plans to develop a new version with more accelerometers and a digital compass so the user could instruct a robot to disable an improvised explosive device or travel exactly 300 yards west, for example, using signals from the glove alone.
Noted AnthroTronix Chief Technology Officer Jack Vice, a former Force Recon Marine, "One of the most promising outcomes of the Battle Lab simulations and live testing was the fact that warfighters only required minimal training to learn to operate both the iGlove and MFC. Additionally, in comparing the iGlove to traditional controllers, warfighters favored the simplicity of the iGlove mode switching, in which they simply reached out and touched the human joint to control the corresponding robotic joint."
Vice added, "TATRC support has enabled us to fully integrate the controllers with Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems software, gain invaluable feedback from Soldiers, and develop new control methodologies as we integrate the controllers with high-degree-of-freedom robots such as the BEAR."
For these projects, TATRC has leveraged funding from the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Command, the Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise, the Robotics Systems Joint Project Office, the Army Research Lab, the Small Business Innovative Research Program and Congressionally Directed Research funds.
Said Gilbert, "The Battle Lab testing process has great potential for overcoming the numerous barriers to transitioning research prototypes or new and emerging technologies to operational systems. Even our initial simulation and live operational assessments point to significant research challenges ahead in developing and fielding unmanned systems for combat casualty care. But this is the technology of the future.
"If robots could be used in the face of threats such as urban combat, booby-trapped IEDs, and chemical and biological weapons, it could save medics' and fellow Soldiers' lives."