Engineering Psychologist Schipani Presents Lecture on Military Robots

On Wednesday, Sept. 28 Salvatore P. Schipani, Engineering Psychologist for the Naval Air Systems Command, presented a lecture on Military Robots at Goodpaster Hall. Schipani, while working for the United States Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground, conducted “a series of three field experiments” of the army’s Experimental Unmanned Vehicle (XUV) in order to make “an assessment of operator mental workload.”

Schipani presented pictures of the XUV, a vehicle that resembles a moon rover with a turret and periscope apparatus evocative of Hunter Killer Tanks from James Cameron’s Terminator films. According to Schipani, “The United States Army intends to field a Future Weapons System equipped unit of action by the end of the decade.” The XUV is built by General Dynamics Robotic Systems and is designed to carry soldiers into battle. At this point, one XUV is capable of guiding four other unmanned vehicles, autonomously, over moderate terrain.

Schipani characterizes workload as “the feeling of psychological effort, or the perceived use of a human’s limited resources. . . Natural environments impose significant obstacles to successful navigation by remote systems. Part of the difficulty in storing complete autonomy lies in the inability of available techniques . . . to classify contextual information and store knowledge for later recognition of objects and environmental features.” This means technology allowing completely autonomous (independent) movement of robots does not yet exist. Natural environments are extremely complex, meaning that huge loads of information are needed by robots to analyze everything about a surrounding environment.

In closing, Schipani said, “Without human intervention, any period of vehicle incapacitation most likely equates to mission failure.” Clearly, anything reminiscent of James Cameron’s films is decades away, although the current capabilities of Military Robots are still impressive.

Schipani also authored a paper titled “Maze Hypothesis Development in Assessing Robot Performance During Teleoporation.” In this study, Schipani was tasked with designing a maze to evaluate the functionality of different Urban Search and Rescue robots. The robots were tested in a maze Schipani created as a navigation exercise. Engineers remotely controlled the robots as they traversed the maze. Data was collected on how long it took robots to gain situation awareness and how often they ran into walls or dead ends. The results have yet to be tested for reliability or validity and submitted for evaluation by the American Society for Testing and Materials. However, from the significant results, Schipani concluded that using a maze to evaluate robot teleoperation is most likely a reasonable strategy.

The high points of Schipani’s presentation were his anecdotes about working for the United States Department of Defense. Schipani related a particularly entertaining story about one of the first operational “Bomb Bots.” According to Schipani, the first Bomb Bot was purchased by Army Special Forces from a company managed by retired Army Special Forces Personnel. A team of Green Berets deployed to Afghanistan released the Bomb Bot into a bunker held by insurgents. The Bomb Bot malfunctioned and upended just beyond the entrance to the bunker. After a second malfunction, the Green Berets set it down range and “blew the hell out of it.” Clearly, the capabilities of the United States Department of Defense’s first Bomb Bots are not proportionate to the capabilities of its XUV prototypes, yet.

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