Dumber Bot = Happier Soldier


It aint much to look at. But then, ODIS wasnt designed to win robot beauty contests. ODIS, which stands for Omni Directional Inspection System, is one of a score of small military ground robots developed by universities in recent years and now seeing its first real-world tests in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ODIS looks like a fat bathroom tile and moves like a hockey puck on tiny invisible wheels. It was designed in the late 1990s by researchers at the University of Utah to assist military and law enforcement personnel in inspecting vehicles for bombs and contraband. The bots low profile and small size let it skate easily underneath any vehicle, where it uses a simple digital video camera to peer up at the vehicles undercarriage.

The first ODISs were totally autonomous, according to Terry Tierney, an engineer at the Armys robotics labs at the Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Michigan. But users complained that they didnt trust the bot, so TARDEC took the basic, autonomous ODIS and made it dumber.

Besides assuaging the fears of bot-phobic operators, this had the effect of making ODIS cheaper, meaning TARDEC and its university partner could make more of them for testing. The less-autonomous models were handed over to the Coast Guard and the California Highway Patrol, and later, to U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where suicide car-bombers (warning: graphic!) are a constant threat.

Getting feedback from the deployed test models is difficult, says TARDECs Bill Smuda, since the operators are more focused on using the system than writing up reports about it. So periodically, Smuda goes on the road with his menagerie of small bots to places like Baghdad and sees for himself how they perform.

Based on this, TARDEC has made several fixes to ODIS in anticipation of greater military demand for the system. Engineers have added a metal zipper mast that unrolls from inside the robot to elevate a camera for peering into truck beds. Theyve also made the wheels detachable. In a 10-minute operation, you can add bigger wheels for off-roading. Theyve designed additional fixtures including cameras and claws to give operators choices. Finally, TARDEC has switched the ODIS control console from a unique proprietary system to one thats based on the Xbox gaming controller. Why? Because, Smuda says, you can buy them in the PX, or post-exchange the militarys department stores. So if your ODIS controller breaks, even in back-woods Afghanistan, a replacement isnt far off.

ODIS is just one of several types of Unmanned Ground Vehicles that is slowly and subtly transforming the way soldiers fight. The fundamental idea is standoff. That is, keeping soldiers at a distance while expendable robots go into harms way.

--David Axe, cross-posted at War Is Boring and Ares

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