Launch Stories provides warfighters, sponsors, partners, and taxpayers with an inside look at the technologies and research developed by small businesses working with the Air Force.
Sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), this new forum highlights the advanced tools and innovations that drive US competitiveness and make service members safer, better informed, and more efficient than ever. These are their stories.
(If you are interested in partnering with the Air Force to develop a new technology or explore new markets, you can find more information here.)
Congress established the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in 1982 to strengthen the role of smaller businesses in federally-funded research and development. This program stimulates technological innovation, uses small businesses to meet Federal R&D needs, and increases private sector competition, productivity, and economic growth.
The Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, a sister program to SBIR, was established by Congress in 1992 to encourage small business partnerships with Universities, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, and qualified non-profit research institutions.
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Imagine you must find an open field for an airplane to land behind enemy lines. The ground needs to be tested to make sure it is solid enough to support the plane. But you know that enemies could be nearby and that you should be exposed as little as possible. The Robotics Assault Zone Terminal Evaluation Kit (RAZTEK) drives out to the middle of the field with a surveyor, collects the data quickly and efficiently, and then returns—all while limiting the risk to operators.
Assessing the viability of potential assault-zone landing strips is a high risk and labor intensive mission. The extended amount of time spent exposed in open areas and with limited situational awareness leaves the Special Tactics (ST) Surveyor Teams vulnerable to many inherent risks. In an effort to reduce those risks and benefit from faster, more accurate data collection, AFRL sought to develop the Robotics Assault Zone Terminal Evaluation Kit (RAZTEK), an autonomous robotic system capable of surveying expedient runways.
The Mosquito on the back of RAZTEK.
It is essential that untested runways are properly evaluated before sending planes, supplies, and troops. If the ground is too soft, the plane may land improperly or be rendered unable to take off again. But surveying these sites is difficult and dangerous work for those on the ground. RAZTEK can be programmed to collect runway data faster and better than a human, and all without putting members of a Survey Team at risk.
TORC Robotics set out to create an automated solution that would collect ground information and keep surveyors out of harm's way. They decided to design a modular, platform-agnostic conversion for the Lightweight Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle (LTATV), a small side-by-side car that is easily transported by a variety of small aircraft. This system can accommodate different LTATV platforms with minimal reconfiguration while maintaining the ability for manned operation.
""I think one of the biggest enhancements is RAZTEK allows for a much faster LZ survey in addition to safety, accuracy, and reduced exposure."" — Jerry Provenza
The RAZTEK incorporates a drive-by-wire, tele-operated control and autonomous navigation, combined with a Mosquito payload, to complete the survey mission. Drive-by-wire uses a combination of mechanical actuators and electronic feedback to control the primary and driving functions of the vehicle and provide vehicle status information such as speed, engine warnings, and fuel status. Additionally, modifications were made to integrate a secondary alternator for 24V power. The tele-operation system incorporates multiple fixed cameras, as well as a ER/IR Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera for operator situational awareness and hazard identification. The autonomous system uses a combination of software algorithms, LIDAR sensors, fused Global Positioning System (GPS) and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) data and map based mission planning to carry out the high level autonomous tasks for runway surveys. Finally, the system uses autonomous behaviors to control the Mosquito, an automated Dynamic Cone Penetrometer (DCP), to assess soil hardness. The collected data from the survey, including DCP measurements, gradients, hazards and glide slopes are transmitted over tactical communications back to the operator.
Currently, survey teams manually carry all of their necessary equipment into open runway areas and might spend hours analyzing ground quality. It's a strenuous and risky process made much less so by the RAZTEK. With more accurate data collection and fewer surveyors exposed to the dangers of enemy fire, this robotic system will not only better-inform potential landing areas, it will directly save lives in the field.
RAZTEK has been designed to serve as a powerful tool for all aspects of runway surveys, not only to increase the speed and accuracy of the survey, but keep the operators out of harm's way. — Andrew Culhane, Business Development Manager at TORC Robotics, LLC
TORC Robotics, LLC (TORC®) is a leading provider of unmanned and autonomous ground vehicle solutions for the defense, mining, automotive, and agricultural industries. TORC components and technology have been integrated on over 100 unmanned and autonomous ground vehicle platforms.
Path Planning and Hazard Detection for Assault Zone Terminal Evacuation
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