The Challenge: Autonomous Fire Capability

On the battlefield, in the world of mining, and in agriculture – the ground robotics market is growing, and IAI plans to be at the cutting edge of technology. Special interview with the head of the business unit in charge of IAI's ground robotics activity, Meir Shabtai

Ground robots by IAI (Photo: Meir Azulay)

IAI is one of the pioneers in the field of Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs). Originally, IAI became involved in this activity about fifteen years ago, through G-Nius – a joint venture with Elbit Systems. The partnership was eventually dissolved, and IAI went on to develop this field of activity independently.

"Until 2009, we faced significant technological problems. How to navigate, how to provide bandwidth on the move and so forth. Over the last three years, the technology required to fulfill the operational needs has matured, and now the difficulty is in educating the market," says Meir Shabtai, who heads the business unit in charge of IAI's ground robotics activity. Since the beginning of this year, this activity received a boost as it became an independent business unit instead of operating under IAI's Lahav Division as before. The maturation of the relevant technology notwithstanding, it appears that defense clients are not rushing to adopt UGVs. Some indications have become visible in the US Army, the IDF, and several other armed forces, but the actual scope of acquisition has been limited. "Over the last two years there has been some awakening compared to the past," says Shabtai. "The civilian sector has contributed as well. The soldier who just went on leave a moment ago was introduced to the convenience and advantages of unmanned platforms. The exposure of users to civilian solutions permeates into the military as well."

Ground robots may be used for Dangerous, Dull or Dirty (DDD) military missions, like driving back and forth along a section of the border, transporting cargos, towing bogged-down armored vehicles, collecting intelligence in threat-saturated areas and so forth. "The ground vehicles can travel from one point to another autonomously. It is no longer necessary to steer them using a joystick. This capability leaves the operator free to handle the sensors or the weapon systems, which are the core activity," explains Shabtai. "

Open Architecture

Another change that took place in this field was the transition from products to systems. In the past, UGVs were being sold. Today, clients want a comprehensive solution that would enable them to execute a mission. The global market is interested in applications. The client dictates a need, and the manufacturer develops and builds a complete system that includes the vehicle, the communication subsystem, the command and control subsystem, the training environment and all of the elements required in order to fulfill the client's need. The solution combines vehicles, sensors and various types of subsystems and software modules.

"Our approach is one of open architecture. The objective is to enable the client to incorporate any subsystems or sensors he desires. To do so, the development activity at IAI focuses on the system core through such elements as algorithms, communication, encryption, et al. Additionally, the client is provided with open interfaces enabling him to adapt the platform to any mission he desires. Every one of our vehicles may be fitted with a standard weapon station within three weeks. As long as the weapon station conforms to the relevant safety standards, we do not require any foreknowledge regarding the manufacturer. That is the advantage – everything is open.

"Every vehicle is controlled from its own station, and the C2 system enables the fusing of data from multiple vehicles simultaneously. We can also install kits that convert standard vehicles into unmanned vehicles. Clients who had acquired armored vehicles will not be required to dispose of everything and purchase new, unmanned platforms. Such clients look for a way to convert a part of their vehicle fleet into a remotely-controlled fleet. At the same time, the future is not in converted vehicles, but rather in high-precision vehicles, delivered by the manufacturer in accordance with the client's requirements. "

The Cheese has been Moved

One of the questions about remotely-controlled ground vehicles involves their interchangeability with manned vehicles. The issue is the point in time when a government and a military decide what to purchase – tanks, APCs or unmanned vehicles. "Our RoBattle, for example, is a combat vehicle weighing seven tons. It is remotely controlled, capable of navigating at high speed and may be used for an extensive range of missions through modular adaptation of sensors and weapon systems," explains Shabtai. "Such a robot can travel ahead of the forces to collect intelligence without risking troops. Does it offer an alternative for an APC in the context of the procurement considerations? We are not there yet."

Another point that arises when an alternative to manned vehicles is considered is protection for the vehicle. In asymmetrical warfare, urban warfare or open terrain warfare scenarios, the theater will be saturated with threats – antitank missiles, land mines, explosive charges and more. While the protection of manned vehicles is intended to protect the troopers inside the vehicle, there are no troopers manning robotic systems. In this case, the protection is intended to ensure the survival of the platform itself until the mission has been accomplished. "The focus, as far as protection for the vehicle is concerned, is on the survival of the engine, the oil pipes, the electronic systems, antennae and any other assembly that might interfere with the completion of the mission at hand," says Shabtai. "If an antitank missile should hit the robot and dent a section of the chassis, it will not necessarily disrupt its operation.

"If the vehicle carries a Radar and a weapon station, the combination of these elements may be used for active protection. They will be used to spot the source of the fire aimed at the vehicle, to aim the weapon system fitted to the vehicle and destroy the threat. This is the advantage offered by a robot with a modular sensor and system installation capability. You can do whatever you want with such a vehicle."

One of the main questions with which the ground robotics industry deals is the question of who pulls the trigger. Today, armed UGVs open fire only through a command from their operator. However, as the signature of the enemy on the ground grows smaller, the fire loop must be closed more promptly. At some point, the progress made with regard to the fire loop closure capabilities will raise the question of autonomous decision-making by the robots with regard to actual fire. In the coming years, the robot manufacturers will have to address the question of the conditions under which the robot would be authorized to make an autonomous decision to open fire.

"We know how to fit robots with weapon systems, day/night optics integrated with software modules by startup companies for such solutions as biometric identification. These robots possess cutting-edge capabilities for closing the loop. The question is who actually pulls the trigger. The industry is yet to find a solution for this problem, and such a solution is not expected within the next two years at least," explains Shabtai.

Not Just the Defense Sector

The developments being perfected at IAI in the field of ground robotics are also used in civilian applications. One of the most notable applications involves the world of mining. According to Shabtai, the primary challenge in running a mine involves micro-processes that add up to operating costs and not in converting vehicles into remotely-controlled platforms. "In a mine, the area cell is well known, the roads are well known, and the work profiles are routine. The solution, in this case, is a C2 system that manages all of the robots used in the mine.

"Let's assume that one truck wants to go up fully loaded while another one wants to go down empty. Who has the right of way? Who brakes? Just for such an event, we can show savings in vehicle wear with regard to brakes, fuel and working time. The client seeks a solution. If he has existing vehicles in the mine, regardless of the manufacturer, we will convert them into remotely-controlled platforms, but the main thing is the C2 element. "

Another field of activity IAI wants to enter, in addition to mine management, is agriculture. The world of agriculture is beginning to adopt unmanned vehicles for various tasks. The use of unmanned vehicles in agriculture enables maximum utilization of the operating infrastructure as the platforms can work continuously, around the clock.

"We deal with ground robots exclusively and cooperate with other units within IAI. Some of our marketing activity includes cooperative efforts with manufacturers of military and engineering vehicles. The bulk of the unit's marketing activity relies on the marketing setup of IAI which operates in 90 countries. If a vehicle manufacturer wants to include remotely-controlled vehicles in his product line, he will have to invest a few years and millions of dollars to get there. Sometimes they prefer to go with us as an OEM supplier of the technology. "

As to the question of whether IAI plans to enter the field of autonomous cars for the retail market, with kits or systems, Shabtai told us that the subject is under discussion. "You will see us in mining and agriculture. It will not take too long for us to decide whether we should also enter the field of autonomous cars," Shabtai concludes with a wink.

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