WarLoc locates foot soldiers in GPS-denied areas

April 27, 2020  - By

Photo: Robotic Research

A new system, called WarLoc, makes it possible to locate warfighters and first responders in GPS-denied environments.

Created by Robotic Research, a manufacturer of autonomy and robotic technology, the system provides localization and positioning data for teams entering underground facilities and traveling inside buildings and in urban canyons.

According to the company, multiple systems — including, besides WarLoc, robotic systems, UAVs and manned vehicles equipped with its technology — collaborate to enhance accuracy and maintain the localization of teams.

Its system, the company said, is unique in that “it has very small 3D position error in such a small package” and its filtering algorithms, rather than being centralized, are “distributed and opportunistic in nature to provide the best solution given the communications available.”

In January, Robotic Research received a $16.5-million order for WarLoc from the U.S. Army Product Manager Sets, Kits, Outfits and Tools (PM SKOT) to support forward-deployed U.S. military personnel. The company will deliver the WarLoc units to equip four deployed U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams. The first batch has been shipped. The procuring organization, PM SKOT, provides Army and Joint Services oversight of the lifecycle for all sets, kits, outfits and tools used by U.S. soldiers.

Distributed System

A self-contained localization system typically relies on GNSS signals, when available, complemented by inertial navigation. By contrast, the WarLoc is a distributed system meant to work as a team, said Alberto Lacaze, Robotic Research’s co-founder and president. The problem, he explains, is how to filter these devices. Centralized approaches, in which every device sends its information to a central computer that does all the filtering, “work very well for an incident commander with a group of first responders going into a building, where the distances are relatively small.” However, he pointed out, they do not work when communications go down.

The alternative approach is to filter the information opportunistically, in a distributed fashion, which is what WarLoc does. In GPS-denied environments, “there is a process that synchronizes all the nodes once the communications have been established,” Lacaze said. “However, if you have, for example, two team members that are each in their own radio bubble, their solutions will continue to be optimized and other team members might be in their own bubbles, so their solution is also being optimized. If these two teams get in contact, their information will get synchronized and collectively optimized.”

The system, he adds, is “heavily reliant on the inertial solution and dead reckoning.” The more units can communicate and share data, the more accurate the navigation solution is. “In a relatively small package, we can achieve better than 1% error of distance traveled for a single unit,” said Lacaze. “Once you have multiple units communicating and measuring with each other, the solution gets significantly better.”

WarLoc, which contains all the required hardware and software, connects to a system used by first responders and the Department of Defense’s Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) also being used in GPS-enabled areas. “Our system can be used not only for tracking humans, but also for tracking animals and other devices, such as robotic systems or vehicles,” Lacaze said.

Relative Localization

On the commercial side, the company has created a kit for autonomous shuttles and is deploying it in about 20 cities around the world. Like WarLoc, this device also works in GPS-denied areas, such as on an underground shuttle on a university campus. “We just won a contract to automate the busses that go through the Lincoln Tunnel,” Lacaze said.

Busses or shuttles using Robotic Research’s system “learn landmarks in the area that they are traversing and use them as an aid in localization, in conjunction with inertial units,” Lacaze said. “The vehicles learn their surroundings.” They don’t care about their absolute position, he explained, only about their relative position with respect to those areas. This is similar to pre-GPS directions like “Make a left at the post office, then a right at the gas station.” They can also use a common landmark. “If the first vehicle is seeing a certain building and knows its lat/long and the second vehicle saw that building some time ago, it can measure its distance from it using its own inertial system.”

While warfighters communicate their position information via their personal tactical radios to ATAK, which then shares it through its current radio infrastructure, vehicles on the road communicate it through dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) radio, a cell network, or some other network.

Other Robotic Research Programs

Robotic Research’s technology supports a range of robotics and autonomous vehicles in GPS-denied environments, including shuttles and buses for public transportation, hybrid unmanned aerial and ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs), and trucks in the U.S. Army Autonomous Ground Resupply (AGR) Expedient Leader-Follower program.

The company is the prime contractor on several Army programs, including AGR, which consists of robotic trucks that the Army will begin to deploy. “We have delivered close to 100 of those trucks,” said Lacaze. “So, for example, if you are in a convoy and you need to know whether your warfighters are inside or outside a truck, WarLoc can tell you.”

Robotic Research’s AutoDrive autonomy kit, which can be retrofitted to vehicles of all sizes, provides autonomous functionality on surfaces ranging from urban-improved roads to off-road terrain, while the vehicle collects and analyzes data. The technology provides automation to one of the largest international shuttle providers as well as to the largest U.S. manufacturer of commercial buses, according to the company.

In February, the company announced it will begin testing totally unmanned, fully autonomous, low-speed shuttles in the second quarter of this year. It will initially involve attendants in fixed on-site locations, then will aim to move attendants to an offsite safety-monitoring facility.

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@northcoastmedia.net or 541-543-0525.