Successfully navigating urban theaters is vital to today’s battlefield supremacy. However, labyrinthine streets and buildings complicate this prospect — tucked around a corner, an improvised explosive device (IED) lies in wait for unsuspecting soldiers. Thankfully, an emerging battlefield technology mitigates these threats.
In city-based conflicts, soldiers have started using lightweight, durable robots to sniff out IEDs and assess the terrain ahead. These remote-controlled soldiers, also called unmanned ground vehicles (UGV), have featured prominently in the Iraqi government’s recent invasion of ISIS-held Mosul. “You need something to go before the soldier,” said Roboteam CEO Shahar Abuhazira, a leading defense robotics company.
"Robots will have a big role in the future of ground combat,” said Heidi Shiyu, former Army chief weapons buyer, in a recent Defense Daily article. According to a market analysis released this week by marketsandmarkets.com, the UGV industry will be worth $18.65 billion by 2020.
Roboteam is in a prime position to ride this trend. Founded just seven years ago, the Tel Aviv-based company already has UGVs deployed in over 20 countries. They opened a U.S. subsidiary, based in Maryland, in 2012.
Their big break came last year, when the Air Force awarded them a six-year, $25 million contract for 250 anti-IED Micro Tactical Ground Robots. In addition to its bomb-diffusing capabilities, the robot can climb stairs and over rocky terrain, offers 360-degrees video, and weighs less than 20 pounds. It even folds up into a backpack the soldier can wear.
Abuhazira attributes part of his company’s success to its personnel. All of the workers are ex-military. “They understand what the user will need,” he said. Abuhazira, himself, spent six years in the Israeli Special Forces.
In the coming months Roboteam will release their newest product, the Transportable Interoperable Ground Robot, or TIGR. “It is the most advanced UGV the market has ever known,” he said. The company is also eyeing the purported $400 million Army contract to supply around 4,000 soldier-carried robotic systems and has partnered with DRS Technologies to ensure swift production.
While Abuhazira wouldn’t speculate where UGV technology would be in 20 years, he said two things. First, that UGVs will not proliferate until non-experts can wield robots effectively. Second, at least another decade would pass before fully autonomous unmanned ground vehicles will populate the industry.
“Communication between manned and unmanned … is a big challenge,” Abuhazira said. “Typical soldiers, they can look at each other, they can shout at each other, they know what to do. … In order to make [robots], you need to create the same relationship between the system and the person.”