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January 25, 2016

Keeping Fighters Safe

Air and Ground, Unmanned All Around

By Byron Spice /

Two very different autonomous robots — a Black Hawk helicopter and a Land Tamer® ground vehicle — combined their unique capabilities to perform reconnaissance of a potentially contaminated remote site in a demonstration this fall for the U.S. Army.

The joint demonstration by Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) and Sikorsky Aircraft, a Lockheed Martin Co., proved that ground and air robots can perform complex missions that would otherwise put soldiers at risk.

The autonomous Black Hawk carrying NREC’s Land Tamer
vehicle to a remote site in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“We were able to demonstrate a new technological capability that combines the strengths of air and ground vehicles,” said Jeremy Searock, NREC technical project manager. “The helicopter provides long-range capability and access to remote areas, while the ground vehicle has long endurance and high-precision sensing.”

The Oct. 27 demonstration for the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) took place at Sikorsky’s Development Flight Center in West 
Palm Beach, Fla.

In the demonstration, a Black Hawk helicopter equipped with Sikorsky’s 
Matrix™ autonomy kit flew NREC’s Land Tamer all-terrain vehicle, slung beneath the aircraft in a specially designed cage, 12 miles to a remote area.

Once the helicopter lowered the vehicle to the ground, the Land Tamer drove itself off of its transport platform to commence its leg of the mission. The vehicle, equipped with sensors for detecting chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear contamination, then found and surveyed several potentially contaminated sites, autonomously traversing six miles in the process.

When the vehicle sensors detected potential contamination, operators were able to switch the vehicle from autonomous operation into a tele-operated mode for a more detailed exploration of the site.

“The teaming of unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles, as demonstrated here, has enormous potential to bring the future ground commander an adaptable, modular, responsive and smart capability that can evolve as quickly as needed to meet a constantly changing threat,” said Paul Rogers, TARDEC director. “The cooperative effort between the Army labs, academia and industry to bring solutions to the warfighter is exciting to see.”

NREC led the 19-month project, which was called Extending the Reach of the Warfighter Through Robotics.

NREC has extensive experience in unmanned ground vehicles, having developed the unmanned Crusher off-road vehicle for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Advanced Platform Demonstrator for TARDEC and a tactical unmanned ground vehicle, called Gladiator, for the U.S. Marines, as well as advanced off-road autonomous driving technology. NREC also was part of CMU’s Tartan Racing Team that won the $2 million 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge robot race with its autonomous SUV called Boss.

The Black Hawk helicopter used in the demonstration was a UH-60MU model, equipped for “fly-by-wire” operation. Sikorsky installed its Matrix technology, which it has been developing since 2013.

“We invested in Matrix technology because we knew it would mean that, in certain scenarios, the warfighter can be kept out of harm’s way and would be able to perform more missions and perform them more effectively,” said Mark Miller, vice president of research and engineering at Sikorsky. “This demonstration indicated just that.”

“This project was a great partnership between Carnegie Mellon and Sikorsky Aircraft,” Searock said. “It was rewarding for our engineers to work with Sikorsky’s team to create a new capability that will benefit our military forces.”