Keeping hazards at robot arm's length

July 11, 2014

DRDC technicians test the MATS robotic arm by performing various types of activities during evaluations at Suffield Research Centre.

A team of military responders hunker down behind sand bags, periodically peering over the top to watch a group of vehicles’ lights fade into the blackness of night. When the lights disappear entirely from their line of sight, the team’s focus quickly shifts back to the operator manning a control station. As if looking through a rear-view mirror they can see on the video display that the vehicle is making its way across the hilly terrain. The distance travelled on the top left-hand corner of the screen shows the vehicle is now 3 kilometres away.

Less than one kilometre away from the destination the thermal imager picks up vehicle tracks originating from the East. The tracks go underneath the locked gate and end just in front of the building. The operator reports over the radio “our suspicions have been confirmed, someone was here recently.”  The vehicle continues on and within minutes reaches the gate. With the controls at his fingertips, the operator – stationed now kilometres away – commands the vehicle’s robotic arm to reach up and unlatch the gate lock.

Using the joystick to slowly move forward, the operator drives the vehicle inside the open gate. At last all that stands between the vehicle and the source that needs removing is a heavy wooden door. With more skilful manoeuvring of the joystick, the operator swiftly moves the hydraulic arm and breaks down the door.

With the door now on the ground, the operator drives the vehicle over top of it to reach the middle of the room. The vehicle’s onboard radiation detectors have helped him locate the source of concern. The team discusses the best approach for handling and removal and the operator commands the arm to move again, this time delicately moving the source of concern to a safer location. The operator reports over the radio “task complete, requesting permission to move back to the entrance.”

While the operators and the tele-operated vehicles are real, this describes a training scenario run by two technologists with Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).

“We delivered training to a number of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) operators during an intensive two-week Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry (MATS) driver training course,” explains Blaine Fairbrother who has worked for several years on developing MATS vehicles at Suffield Research Centre. The Next Generation MATS vehicles were delivered in October 2013 from Alberta via a CC-130 Hercules aircraft to the CAF. Shortly after, training was held for the operators so they could put the upgraded vehicles through their paces.

This new generation of MATS vehicle, the original model first fielded in 2004, is a leading example of DRDC’s ability to improve an existing system and equip it with the latest generation technology to enhance the CAF’s ability when investigating chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) incidents. The technology helps better mitigate the associated risks and take informed decisions when responding to potential threats.

“Over time, particularly in the last two years, significant vehicle enhancements resulted in the next generation MATS vehicle rolling off the lot with both improved and new functions,” describes the senior officer responsible for Force Development at Canadian Joint Incidence Response Unit (CJIRU).

“We (DRDC engineers and technologists) worked directly with CAF decision makers and users to satisfy their needs and we also proposed improvements, such as the addition of the robotic arm, in order to increase the vehicle’s functionality,” explains Fairbrother.

“Our close collaboration with DRDC engineers is extremely appreciated,” explains the senior officer at CJIRU “our direct feedback to them led to improvements tailored to our unique tasks.”  Upgrades resulting from this feedback that have enhanced the vehicles’ operational capability include the multi-functional robotic arm, digital video rather than analog, better integrated cameras with picture-in-picture capability, a 360-degree lighting package and thermal imager for night operations, pre-set options for easier command, quick-connect cable antennae for faster setup and a shock absorption mount for the chemical detector to reduce the amount of damage sustained from vehicle shake.

Designed by DRDC and built to specification by Meggitt PLC, this sophisticated vehicle supports the CAF when conducting reconnaissance, detecting chemical and radiological hazards, sampling bio threats, removing barriers and lifting heavy objects. With accessibility built into the controls, operators are able to complete their task while sitting in the vehicle’s front seat or from kilometres away using the ground control station.

“Operators, situated kilometres away, can now open gates, manhole covers, vehicle doors, and gain entry to buildings – something which before was impossible. Investigation of areas with unknown threats is critical to making informed decisions when approaching a potentially hazardous environment. It helps the operator to safely get closer to examine an object or building that otherwise wasn’t accessible in the past,” describes Fairbrother.

 According to the senior officer at CJIRU, “DRDC excels at providing cutting edge technology that allows machines to assume risks rather than putting humans in harm’s way. The addition of the robotic arm to MATS is a great example of this; now our operators can manipulate objects while staying a safe distance away. Not to mention, detecting CBRNE threats requires intense focus and machines never get distracted or fatigued during extended missions.Currently, DRDC technicians are testing the final next generation MATS vehicles which will be delivered to the CAF shortly. In addition to this, DRDC is also participating with the testing and evaluation of other types of commercial autonomous systems being considered to meet other CAF operational needs.

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