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Small unmanned systems find growing security role

FederalTimes: Sept 29, 2014

These days drones get all the media attention, but in fact these unpiloted aircraft are just the tip of the unmanned iceberg.

In homeland security, unmanned technologies are sniffing out bombs, analyzing chemical spills, scouting undersea mines and serving as the advance eyes of first-responder teams.

They’re getting smaller, too, more lightweight and more maneuverable. That’s making it easier to bring unmanned technology onto the scene of an incident and to assess situations that might be too hazardous for a first responder to explore.

Digging deep

Take, for instance, the smuggling tunnels that have long vexed the border patrol. Crawling through a dark narrow pipe to investigate these tunnels is daunting and dangerous, and while robots have helped in the past, the newest versions take unmanned exploration to a new level.

“They are definitely lighter, approximately 18 pounds,” said Border Patrol Agent Bryan Flowers in Tucson. “They have gotten more compact and that makes them a lot more useful.”


Customs and Border Protection has three robots sniffing tunnels in the Tucson sector. “It provides our agents with better situational awareness. If there are armed smugglers in there, if there are any narcotics in there, we want to know that before we go in there,” Flowers said.

The scaling down of unmanned devices has been dramatic, said Jake Deuel, a manager with Sandia National Laboratories. That lab, along with Los Alamos National Laboratory, runs an annual Robot Rodeo to test operators’ ability to maneuver the latest unmanned machines. While the biggest ground vehicles may still weigh in at 600 pounds, the smallest throwable devices weigh just five pounds.

“With these smaller ones, you can actually drive them in under a car to inspect what is down there, without sending in a person or having to pick up the whole car,” Deuel said.

Growing demand

All numbers point to a growing demand for unmanned technology on land, air and sea. In 2010 Jane’s DS Forecast predicted an $8.6 billion market for unmanned ground vehicles for the period 2010 through 2019. That number has held steady: The most recent report from MarketsandMarkets predicts an $8.26 billion market by 2020, up from $1.51 billion in 2014.

On the nautical side, Market Info Group predicts a global market of $11 billion for unmanned maritime systems by 2020. Unmanned aerial vehicles will continue to show dramatic growth according to Teal Group’s 2013 market study, which estimates UAV spending will more than double over the next decade, from $5.2 billion annually to $11.6 billion.

It’s easy to envision a range of homeland security uses for unmanned vehicles, especially the smaller machines that have become increasingly available.

Industry leader iRobot has developed tools that will climb stairs and lift up to 15 pounds, serving as forward-looking assets in urban situations where elevators have gone out. Tactical teams can use them to deploy thermal cameras, biological and radiation sensors, chemical sniffers and a range of other detectors.

“Those sensors have gotten smaller, the interfaces have gotten easier to integrate. We don’t need a really large platform anymore to have a whole host of sensors,” said Tom Phelps, director of robotics products for iRobot North America.

Unmanned tools have also gotten more nimble. Take, for instance, Bluefin Robotics’s Hovering Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. Rather than skirt along a ship’s hull the way a submarine might, this “hovering” vehicle can hold in place to search for underwater bombs and other hazards, CEO David Kelly said. It’s safer and less time consuming than having divers paddling around in a moving sea with poor light conditions.

Looking ahead, homeland security robots will likely focus on the pilot side. “You want to have a single user who can be the robot expert, versus having three different experts controlling the robots and potentially having communications challenges,” Phelps said. “It’s all about giving the first responders greater control over the robots they have.”■

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