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DARPA robotics focus needs switching from battlefield to supply

Defense contractors take note: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is predicting a budgeting switch from a focus on the “tooth,” or battlefield robotics needs, to the “tail,” further down the chain from the battlefield itself.

“My prediction as to where defense budgeting in robotics is going to come in the future is we have to stop monopolizing the view, which is that it’s all about the battlefield -- it’s actually a lot about the tail, as well,” Gill Pratt, program manager at DARPA, said Friday at the University of California, San Diego’s Contextual Robotics Technologies International Forum, which convened some of the top minds in the field.

Pratt said this is essentially a function of two converging realizations: The cost of military personnel is increasing, and robots in the battlefield have been proven to save lives, but not eliminate human injury and death.

Take the case of improvised explosive devices, which Pratt’s data showed were placed by American adversaries at a rate of roughly 1,000 per month during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While robots such as unmanned ground vehicles that scout for and detonate IEDs certainly save lives -- at least 362 during this period, since that’s the number of unmanned ground vehicles destroyed by IEDs -- they are not a one-stop solution.

“The important thing to understand is … billions of dollars of development went into this,” Pratt said. “The lethality of the IED, how much it tends to kill a person, how much it tends to injure a person -- despite the use of robots -- did not change. ... And so I think it’s very important when you think about this problem to realize that robots aren’t the silver bullet. They’re not a panacea.”

At the same time, on the productivity front, the cost of fielding a U.S. military service member in combat has climbed to more than $500,000 per year.

“And you say, ‘Well, Gill, that must be because of tanks and planes and the fancy guns and all that stuff.’ This is independent of all that,” Pratt said. “This is to house them, to feed them, to bring them power, to bring them fuel. All of the things a person needs when they’re in an austere environment that’s unfriendly -- it’s tremendously expensive.”

He said the way to deal with both of these issues is not to build robots to take the place of combat personnel, which, as detailed, won’t necessarily decrease the rate of death, but instead to decrease the number of people needed on the back end.

“This is the percentage of troops performing in combat functions versus the year -- it’s going down and down and down,” he said. “In fact, for every person that’s out there, we typically have three support folks who are also out there but do not have a combat role. So the big idea now within DARPA and the rest of the Defense Department is let’s look at the tail, not just at the teeth. Because trying to automate a lot of this stuff in the tail will save us a tremendous amount of money.”

This robotics forum was convened by UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering Dean Albert Pisano, who announced his intent to create an Institute for Contextual Robotics at the school in September. The timeline for the rollout of the institute isn’t known yet, as Pisano said he and the school are in a “listening phase” to determine the industry’s needs and how UCSD can best partner in solving them.

* Related article: UCSD aims for lead in field with proposed robotics institute

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