Carroll firm navigates its way to military pact

Westminster plant developing robotics system for use in combat

January 19, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

On a recent frigid morning as everyone else huddled inside, Wilbur was making the rounds in the fields surrounding General Dynamics' Carroll County plant, looking for signs of intruders. Cold is no worry to Wilbur, even after hours outdoors. He never gets bored, either, or tired.

Not Wilbur, an autonomous vehicle, part of the latest generation of robotics that outpaces even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars rover.

What sets Wilbur apart is what's inside that compact-car-sized body, the equivalent of half a dozen powerful PCs that allow it to think a lot like we do. Assign the dullest, dirtiest and most dangerous assignments, and Wilbur sets off without a qualm -- or a remote operator.

For the military, Wilbur's higher-level thinking represents a powerful piece of its Future Combat System. The Department of Defense says it hopes in the next decade or so to see as much as a third of its fleet made up of vehicles with autonomous navigation systems, from small ones like Wilbur to the wheeled combat Stryker force.

If these vehicles can patrol, detect land mines, and guard and ferry supplies, troops and ammunition, fewer lives will be put at risk, military officials say.

Last month, General Dynamics Corp.'s Robotic Systems plant off Route 97 in Westminster won a $185 million contract to develop an autonomous navigation system for Army ground vehicles.

But the engineering brainpower for this thinking fleet began a decade ago.

Unlike unmanned air vehicles, which have few obstacles to navigate, "on a ground vehicle, you have to be just like a human," said Scott Myers, president of General Dynamics Robotic Systems. It has taken recent breakthroughs in computing speed to allow technology to support the complex decision-making a ground vehicle requires, he said.

Myers points out that people don't stop to think about the thousands of decisions they make every minute. The engineers in the robotics unit, however, have spent years pondering things such as how we discern trees, colors, water and roads.

"You have to think about how you think and make it mathematical," said Chip DiBerardino, senior engineer. They create mathematical recipes, called algorithms, he said, that allow the vehicles' autonomous navigation system to detect obstacles in the road and evaluate things such as whether they are headed for a puddle or a pond.

Every second, the navigation system is rethinking dozens of decisions, said Mark Del Giorno, vice president of the robotics division. Lasers, cameras and radar work in concert. "They are your eyes as to what's going on," he said.

The autonomous navigation systems are built affordably, Myers said. The vehicle, sensors and lens may set the buyer back millions more, but the software runs about $150,000, he said.

Most of the time, the system runs on its own, the engineers said, but it can get confused and need a human to make the call -- for instance, if the vehicle hits a patch of brambles and cannot immediately determine whether it should move through.

When that happens, a computer message is sent to a control booth, where an operator might be running several vehicles simultaneously and can give the system the information nudge it needs.

Officially, Wilbur is an MDARS-E, a mobile detection assessment response system-exterior, that can travel 15 mph and run for 12 hours on its tank of diesel fuel.

But DiBerardino said that because the vehicles are programmed to think like humans and even talk about their thought processes, perhaps it's human nature to personify them.

Of the four vehicles in the MDARS-E fleet, Christine is the peskiest -- it is named after the Stephen King character because she tends to chase people, he said. Another is called Timid, thanks to its hypersensitive sensors. Ideally, DiBerardino said, they would all perform identically, but during development, there can be a few surprises.

The engineers take the vehicles to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort Bliss, Texas, for road testing. Then they come home to Westminster for tweaking.

They are expected to be ready for deployment in 2008, Del Giorno said.

Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International -- an international group of industry, university and military members -- said the public's intolerance for loss of life during war has helped fuel interest in air, maritime and ground robotics.

"We've become accustomed to war without casualties," he said.

It's a big-money program: According to the Department of Defense's Joint Robotics Program Master Plan for fiscal year 2002, the program spent $27.6 billion on research, development and demonstration of unmanned technologies.

Davidson said the unmanned systems are eyed increasingly by commercial industries seeking to prevent sabotage.

The robotics unit is also working on a program called Vetronics Technology Integration, which enables a person to operate several vehicles at the same time.

With the touch of a computer screen, Eddie Mottern, an engineer on the project, can set up leader vehicles and followers in a convoy including large Strykers and medium XUVs (experimental unmanned vehicles).

The tri-screen display he works with enables him to view maps of the battlefield, camera angles from any of the vehicles, as well as facts about vehicles and battlefield communications.

Mottern said the technology might be used for such dangerous tasks as ferrying supplies and ammunition, or picking up the wounded from a unit on the battlefield. In all those cases, he said, far fewer soldiers would be put at risk if remotely operated vehicles are in the fleet.

"If it can save more human life, it's worth it," he said.

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