Tactical mobile robots used in military and law enforcement operations normally require a robust, long range, and non-line-of-sight (NLOS) communications link to the remote control station. This is especially true for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) operators using robots to defeat Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). High frequency digital radio communications, currently the preferred technology, are subject to line-of-sight (LOS) limitations, and thus are often impossible to maintain in urban environments. Between 2001 and 2004, we demonstrated a system of autonomous mobile relay robots that provides non-line-of-sight communication coverage for a lead robot (see AMCR).
Using technologies developed under AMCR and funding from the JGRE, we have developed a more practical system that will allow a mobile robot to carry multiple relay radios that are automatically deployed when and where needed in order to maintain robust communications. This process is completely transparent to the operator and is entirely handled by the ad-hoc network formed by the relay radios. The system is plug-and-playable, and can be attached to many manned and unmanned vehicles requiring long-range and non-LOS operational capability.
Applications for this technology are many, including urban operations, tunnel and cave explorations, underground mine rescue, and first-responder surveys of contaminated disaster areas.
In 2008, ADCR received the Outstanding Technology Development award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium, Far West Region. The system was licensed to three commercial manufacturers for mass production. Meanwhile, we continued the refinement of the system, with the second generation version half as large and using higher-bandwidth and more secure radios.
More functionalities have also been added under a follow-on project, Automatic Payload Deployment System (APDS), including the ability to deploy different types of payload, either automatically or on remote command from a Base Station Unit. Payloads that have been prototyped include an IR illuminator, an empty node that can carry food/medical supplies/ammunition, and a stand-alone video/vibration sensor node that can inject its own video stream into the relayed communication network. The system was also made more modular, with the goal of allowing third-party developers to easily develop other payloads (the payload interface was separated into its own snap-on module), as well as interfacing with a larger number of robots (only another snap-on deployer interface module will have to be developed for each particular robot).