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Robotic arm gives soldiers a helping hand

 

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Dec. 13, 1995 — A robotic arm developed at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) makes it possible for soldiers to go to war with a safer, more effective, automated cannon.

Using a new Crusader system, soldiers on the battlefield will be able to reload a self-propelled howitzer-a cannon mounted on a tracked vehicle-without leaving armored protection and without handling the ammunition as they do now. The Crusader system pairs a howitzer with an ammunition resupply vehicle. A robotic arm is attached to the resupply vehicle that automatically reloads ammunition onto the howitzer.

Now, soldiers reload by hand without armored protection. They must locate the type of ammunition requested by the gun commander, prepare it for firing and transfer it to the howitzer. Then, they must verify the type of ammunition and load it into the cannon. Since reloading occurs on the battlefield, soldiers risk injury from exposure to the hostile environment. The robotic arm, coupled with computer vision technologies that act as "eyes," performs the same reloading tasks and reduce the soldiers' risk.

"Safety for the soldier has been a priority from the beginning," explains Jim Hannah, manager of Army ammunition projects at the Robotics and Process Systems Division (RPSD). "But automated reloading is also more effective than hand loading. It is faster, with less chance of error, and requires fewer soldiers."

Automated reloading is complex. Before the robotic arm can transfer ammunition through its inner tunnel by way of a conveyor, it must locate the howitzer port and maneuver to dock automatically with the howitzer. It can do this under real battlefield conditions, on rough terrain, because the arm has joints much like a human arm. A system of cameras, sensors and computers designed by ORNL acts as the arm's eyes. They see the howitzer port and figure out the right height and angle for docking.

Another system of eyes recognizes the type of ammunition according to its shape, color, weight and markings. To reduce the chance of error, the eyes locate the ammunition needed and check to be sure it is correct before transferring it to the howitzer. A separate system of eyes on the howitzer rechecks the ammunition before it is fired.

The robotic arm and companion technologies have evolved in stages through the collaborative work of ORNL engineers, computer specialists and technicians. "Proving that technology for the Crusader system is ready today has taken three years of work," says Tom Kring, manager for the reloading project.

This work culminated in RPSD's demonstration of the robotic arm and companion technologies for the Army in late November. A defense contractor team, led by United Defense LP of Minneapolis, will build these technologies into a prototype Crusader system. The Army expects to have Crusaders produced and on the battlefield by 2005.

The robotic arm and companion technologies for the Crusader system have been developed through a partnership between the Army and DOE and funded by the Army's Project Manager for Crusader.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram national research and development facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, which also manages the Oak Ridge K-25 Site and the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant.


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