The Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), under the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), is the first Department of Defense organization in history selected to receive the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
The Baldrige National Quality Award is presented annually to a small group of elite businesses and organizations deemed to have world-class performance excellence and quality achievement practices.
ARDEC, located in Picatinny, N.J., is a one-of-a-kind facility that provides virtually all of the lethal mechanisms used in Army weapon systems and those of the other military services. It is a joint service armament research and development center with 2,500 scientists, engineers and technical experts working in five different locations throughout the U.S.
This highly skilled workforce exploits technologies like high power microwaves, high energy lasers and nanotechnology in ARDEC's 10 major technical areas: smart munitions, indirect fire, direct fire, Soldier weapons, mines and demolition, gun propulsion, fuzing and lethal mechanisms, fire control, munitions survivability and pollution prevention.
Army Maj. Michael Pottratz, explosive ordnance disposal deputy director of technology for ARDEC, demonstrated one of ARDEC's wonders, the SWORDS, or Special Weapons Observation Remote Recon Direct Action System robotic weapon, in the RDECOM exhibit at the West 2008 conference in San Diego in February.
The system consists of a weapons platform mounted on a Talon robot, a product of the engineering and technology development firm Foster-Miller. The system runs off DC power, lithium batteries and Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) rechargeable batteries. The control box weighs about 30 pounds, with two joysticks that control the robot platform and the weapon and a daylight viewable screen.
Although, SWORDS is not a new invention, it successfully combines many technologies into one robotic system.
Different weapons can be interchanged on the system – the M-16, the 240, 249 or 50-caliber machine guns, or the M-202–A1 with a 6mm rocket launcher. Soldiers operate it by remote control, from up to 800 meters away.
The Talon robot began helping with military operations in Bosnia in 2000, deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002, and it has been in Iraq since the war started, assisting with improvised explosive device detection and removal.
SWORDS was named one of the most amazing inventions of 2004 by Time Magazine.
"SWORDS was designed to provide the Soldiers standoff distance from a known enemy threat. You can send this robot down the street ahead of the troops to a known enemy location, and it can do reconnaissance without putting any Soldiers in harm's way," Pottratz said.
"We teamed up with industry in order to create this and what you are seeing is the first and only robot that is authorized to be deployed overseas for use in combat. We have three of these robots in Iraq."
Although SWORDS is a weapons system; it doesn't look particularly intimidating. In fact, its compact design is deceiving in its ability to assist warfighters, and Pottratz's demonstration of it made it look fun to operate. To prevent a curious population — or insurgent — from tampering with it, troops must be nearby to operate with SWORDS.
"We have developed training procedures, and part of the training for the use of this system is that you always have eyes on the robot. That provides cover for the robot while it's doing its mission," Pottratz said.
SWORDS training is an intense 40 hours of learning, which includes driving the unit for day and nighttime use. SWORDS comes with third generation starlight scopes for two of the cameras equipped with night vision. Training involves going to a mount site, such as a building, and engaging targets with blank ammunition and wireless gear. Finally, Soldiers take SWORDS to a firing range to qualify with the weapon system, according to Pottratz.
"When the Soldiers are training, they train on the robot itself, but to save money and time we utilize a trainer program, which mimics the robots functions exactly. We call it the SWORDS Trainer and the Talon Trainer," Pottratz said.
"These [trainers] provide a video game setting which prevents wear and tear on the robot, but the Soldiers have realistic scenarios based upon Iraq. We wrote these programs, and they are a mirror image of the control panels you see here," he continued.
The SWORDS robotic training system is operated by America's Army game. Launched in July 2002, America's Army is a fully interactive 3-D environment designed to create a variety of cost-effective technologies from trainers to virtual prototypes. With training applications for the SWORDS, America's Army allows Soldiers to develop and enhance their skills on controlling these robots without the actual robot being there.
The SWORDS power source is a 42-volt lithium-ion battery, which provides about four hours of mobile usage or eight hours of stationary usage. The unit weighs about 200 pounds with a full ammunition supply. The vehicle has five video cameras, which feed information back to the operator for situational awareness.
"We control the robot through an item we call the OCU, which stands for operational control unit. The Soldiers or Marines that use this system gain remote situational awareness using the cameras," Pottratz explained.
Since initial deployment, advancements have been made that include a new camera just completed in December. These are being shipped to Iraq, according to Pottratz, who is excited by the developments in camera technology.
"This camera is called a WARVV (Wide Angle Robotic Vehicle Vision System). It gives the Soldiers a huge angle with which to view the surrounding environment and increases their situational awareness. The ultimate solution, when we get it finished, signifies complete and utter situational awareness. It is the HARV, the Head-Aimed Remote Viewer. It is amazing because if you put that HARV on SWORDS, you now understand everything that is around it as if you were sitting on top of the robot," Pottratz said.
"These cameras may not seem as dramatic as this robot here, but they are the true success behind these robots," he added.
The unit that Pottratz demonstrated carries a M-249 machine gun, which fires a 5.56 mm round. It carries a magazine of 400 rounds and can travel up to 5 miles per hour on its tank-like tracks.
SWORDS was developed in response to an ONS, an Operational Needs Statement that came out of Iraq several years ago, according to Pottratz.
"The robot is used at the unit commander's discretion. The location of the asset is determined by how the command wants to employ it. This tool gives [troops] a standoff from the known threat and there is a variety of different uses for it," said Pottratz.
In response to a question about the cost of the SWORDS unit, Pottratz said that the true cost of SWORDS should be measured by its capability and its ability to keep troops safe.
"If you consider that, the cost of loss of life outweighs the cost of the system itself."
The complete maintenance package for SWORDS is already in Iraq. Further deployment of SWORDS is on hold until the units already deployed in Iraq have completed field testing.