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Robotic Vehicles Come of Age

Sandia National Laboratories

Once futuristic, the success of Sandia’s small robotic vehicles on surveillance missions in Afghanistan has led to an accelerated program for robotic vehicles for military and other applications.

Due to overwhelming demand for our small RATLER™ (Robotic All Terrain Lunar Exploration Rover, originally a prototype for lunar exploration), we transferred production to a commercial firm. RATLER vehicles come in a range of sizes, from 8 inches up to 3 feet long; are lightweight and maneuverable; and are able to navigate over long distances. Because of their wide usage, RATLERs have been equipped with small fuel cells that triple the range of previous battery-powered versions.

Sandia robots range from insect-like (one cubic inch) vehicles equipped with microsensors to large systems for coating aircraft or transferring 20-ton containers between ships at sea. Our Sand Dragon robotic vehicles demonstrated capabilities to surmount obstacles and climb stairs. Our design for a larger, 1,500-lb unmanned combat vehicle has received funding for a prototype.

Cooperating squads of robotic vehicles may some day be employed for tasks such as fighting forest fires, cleaning up oil spills, delivering and distributing supplies to remote field operations and conducting a variety of military missions.

At Sandia, we are applying this ‘‘swarm behavior’‘ to robotic vehicles equipped with a wide array of manipulators and even weapons. We integrate sensors, computers, and hardware to make highly refined systems that are able to collaboratively carry out highly complex tasks. Not only must the sensors and instruments collect and process data while operating in an unstructured environment, but the swarm must be able to communicate and then make decisions about how best to accomplish its mission.

Sandia has demonstrated swarm behavior—actually swarm intelligence—in unstructured environments. This includes the uses of mobile robots to guard a perimeter, intercept an intruder, search a building for intruders or harmful substances, and find skiers buried in an avalanche. In a Tactical Mobile Robotics program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Sandia demonstrated the capability to remotely surround a facility with a squad of RATLERs. To complete the mission, the vehicles had to autonomously navigate terrain typical of the desert Southwest, including crossing a deep ravine, negotiating tumbleweeds and other thick brush, and following man-made tracks. Several of the vehicles then surrounded the perimeter near the rear exit of the facility while other vehicles entered the main entrance to create a diversion.

Umbra is a simulation environment with capabilities for describing and controlling multiple robots, and incorporating weather, terrain, and radio frequency interference modules. This is one of Sandia’s modeling and simulation tools used to analyze concepts for the Army’s Future Combat System.

Bomb Disposal Robotics
Even before this nation was forced to a heightened state of alert, the number of bombs found across the country was staggering—about 3,000 per year. Sandia bomb disposal robotics technology was licensed to Remotec, which has commercialized it. Now bomb squads have a host of new tools—and extensive training to handle bombs in new ways. Sandia’s bomb disablement systems, such as the PAN Disrupter™, are used to disable explosive devices by defeating the physics of an explosion.

The Sandia Modular Architecture for Robotics and Teleoperation (SMART) mimics human manipulation—taking the strain off operators so they can make coordinated motions rather than twiddling a set of controls. It permits operators to perform complicated tasks, such as reaching through a car window to grab a suitcase, with intuitive motions.

SMART consists of modules for more than 300 robotic instruments and controls, all of which can be put together on a computer screen, like assembling LEGO building pieces. The system then generates the computer programs to operate the custom assembly. Working throughout the modules are robotic functions such as coordinated motion, collision avoidance, video targeting, and automatic orientation, as well as basic robotics rules for movement.

Sandia has developed techniques and systems to identify, characterize, and potentially disrupt bombs from a distance in a wide variety of situations, including truckload explosive devices.

About Sandia
Sandia National Laboratories began in 1945 on Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as Z Division, part of what’s now Los Alamos National Laboratory. Both labs were born out of America’s atomic bomb development effort—the Manhattan project. Sandia came into being as an ordnance design, testing, and assembly facility, and was located on Sandia Base to be close to an airfield and work closely with the military. In 1949, President Harry Truman wrote a letter to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company president offering the company ‘‘an opportunity to render an exceptional service in the national interest’‘ by managing Sandia. AT&T accepted, began managing the Labs on Nov. 1, 1949, and continued in the role for nearly 44 years. The Labs’ original mission—providing engineering design for all non-nuclear components of the nation’s nuclear weapons continues today, but Sandia now also performs a wide variety of national security research and development.

The Lockheed Martin Corp. has managed Sandia since Oct. 1, 1993, for the U.S. Department of Energy. Most of Sandia’s work is sponsored by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, but we also work for other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Office of Homeland Security, and others. We work cooperatively with a number of government, U.S. industry, and academic partners to accomplish our missions. Today Sandia employs about 7,700 people and has two primary facilities, a large laboratory and headquarters in Albuquerque and a smaller laboratory in Livermore, Calif.

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