Thursday, August 7, 2008

Can Military Robots be Used for Chemical Facility Security?

There is an interesting article on the Washington University in St Louis web site about the increasing use of robotics in military operations. University researchers Few and Smart note that the military expects to have robotic forces of up to 30% of the Army by 2020. With the increasing deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), robots searching for IED’s and robotic surveillance devices, this goal seems very achievable. With that in mind it is probably time to ask the question; can military robots be used for chemical facility security?


Teleoperated Robots


According to the article the current generation of robotic devices deployed with the US military utilizes some level of teleoperation; that is a remote human uses a communication device to control the operations of the robot. For the foreseeable future robotic devices in military and security service will have their major functions controlled by a remote human operator. There will be a general increase in the use of self-directed deployment or control of auxiliary devices and services.


Security Roles for Robots


Most military robots currently deployed are being used as human-substitutes in high risk situations like explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) or IED detection. The defining exception to that generality is the use of UAV’s for long-linger time observation of remote areas. This is the most likely model for initial robotic security deployments.


Many large chemical facilities have lengthy perimeters that are difficult to secure. Irregular fence lines, natural and man-made obstructions, and lack of manpower make it difficult to detect and confirm perimeter incursions. Early detection is the key to allowing for adequate deployment times for active security measures.


Perimeter Surveillance


Larger UAV’s like the Predator would not be practical for any but the largest facilities. There are a number of smaller UAV’s that may be more appropriate for large high-risk chemical facilities. They could be used for both routine perimeter patrol and immediate response for checking out intrusion detection system alerts. Adding chemical sensors would allow for their use in monitoring dispersion of chemical clouds.


As the ability to employ semi-autonomous navigation (point-to-point route selection for example) for ground robots improves their utility for perimeter patrol and immediate response will increase. If the operator can navigate the robot by selecting a series of pre-programmed locations instead of driving the robot, a single operator will then be able to operate multiple observation robots. This will go a long way to overcoming the security manpower cost problem.


Armed Robots for Emergency Response


One of the most controversial uses of robotics in military service is the use of the robot as a weapons platform. Even with full teleoperational control of the weapon system, there are still concerns about inadvertent weapons discharge due to control system or communication system malfunction. These concerns may be substantially reduced by using non-lethal weapons.


Many of these concerns, and general concerns about weapons employment in a chemical facility, could be further reduced by adding a redundant safety-interlock to the weapon’s control system. This interlock could prevent the weapon from being discharged in a number of pre-defined situations. ‘No Fire Zones’ could be programmed into the interlock to prevent weapons discharge in unsafe areas of the facility. A flammability sensor could be added to the platform to prevent discharge of a ‘fired’ weapon in a flammable environment.


A Future for Robotic Security


As the military continues to improve the sophistication of their robotic systems it becomes more likely that security robots will be deployed in the defense of high-risk chemical facilities. Not only does the sophistication increase, but the unit cost of these robotic systems will come down. Additionally, the number of experienced robotic operators that are veterans of robotic combat operations will increase.


It is likely that it will be these veterans that will be behind the companies that develop and start the deployment of security robots. With their government supplied education, practical experience, and security training they will be the natural leaders of the robotic security businesses of the future.

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