Demonstration shows unmanned ground-air collaboration

January 29, 2016  - By

Carnegie Mellon University and Sikorsky Aircraft researchers have used an autonomous helicopter and an autonomous ground vehicle to demonstrate for the U.S. Army that ground and air robots can perform complex, cooperative missions, the university announced Jan. 20.

During the Oct. 27 demonstration, an unmanned Black Hawk helicopter picked up an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), flew a 12-mile route, delivered the UGV to a ground location and released it. The drop-zone collaboration promises to keep warfighters out of harm’s way, enabling them to perform missions more effectively.

An unmanned Black Hawk delivers an autonomous ground vehicle to a remote site in a demonstration for the U.S. Army of a joint robotic air-ground mission.

An unmanned Black Hawk delivers an autonomous ground vehicle to a remote site in a demonstration for the U.S. Army of a joint robotic air-ground mission. (Photo: CMU)

The Black Hawk was equipped for autonomous operation by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Co. It delivered a Land Tamer autonomous unmanned ground vehicle from Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) to a remote site, where the vehicle performed environmental monitoring for potential contamination, the type of robotic mission that could prevent warfighters’ exposure to hazardous conditions, such as chemically or radiologically contaminated areas.

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

Once the helicopter lowered the vehicle to the ground, the Land Tamer drove itself off 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 helicopter delivered the Land Tamer, Carnegie Mellon's unmanned ground vehicle. (Photo: CMU)

The helicopter delivered the Land Tamer, Carnegie Mellon’s unmanned ground vehicle. (Photo: CMU)

“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.

NREC has 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 was also 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.

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, to a remote area.