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Robot car may do Army’s dull, dirty work

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

SYKESVILLE, Md. | A khaki-colored, rugged-looking Jeep with an orange strobe light on top carried no driver or passenger. It accelerated uphill, but stopped seconds later to avoid a pedestrian mannequin veering toward its course.

The vehicle started again, passing another mannequin walking parallel to the roadway.

Then it stopped and traveled back along the same stretch of asphalt. It stopped dozens of yards past its initial braking point.

A team of engineers had trailed the vehicle, observing the government-contracted experiment.

And the General Dynamics Robotics Systems' Second Generation Tactical Autonomous Combat-Chassis, or T2, headed up the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions' Driver Training Facility course again.

The robotics firm is based in Westminster and has been testing the T2 on the course since the beginning of this year.

The company has been adapting and developing technology for the Army project for about 18 months. When finished, the vehicle could be deployed to help troops stationed around the world.

"We're testing future Army unmanned or robotics systems against dynamic obstacles like moving pedestrians and other moving vehicles," said Eddie Mottern, GDRS program manager. "Most of the unmanned system technology has been developed out of GDRS in Carroll County."

Any job that is dull, dirty or dangerous might use the T2s, said Dave Kowachek, who is with the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

"If you've got repetitive tasks, robots don't get tired of doing repetitive tasks," he said. "If you've got a mission that's very dangerous, maybe you can give the soldier an additional standoff distance between himself and the danger through the use of an unmanned system. Or if you simply have a logical resupply mission, you could use a convoy of unmanned systems to resupply some forward assets instead of using 50 soldiers."

The funded technology by the Department of Defense hasn't launched. The team is hoping the T2 will be in use by 2011.

Mr. Kowachek said soldiers are already using systems for unmanned missions, but someone is responsible for guiding the equipment. Those systems rely on cameras and a robust bandwidth infrastructure to send the images back to a computer staffed by someone.

By using T2, personnel in the field could program the robot and let it work by itself.

"You can't expect them to do any better than a human," Mr. Kowachek said. "But if we can get them to do as well as humans, we'd be very happy."