ECA makes robots collaborate

So we all know about RPASs (remotely piloted air systems). And we all know about ground robots or UGVs*. But how about RPASs working in tandem with ground robots? This is the new path being trodden by French company ECA which has been in the robotics field for nearly 50 years. It is one of the few companies developing automated vehicles for all environments: undersea, water surface, land and air. “We are thus in a very good position to make them cooperate as we are the owners of all these technologies,” says Bernard Ponsot, land & aerial robotics director. ECA designs all parts of its robots, including the electronic boards, which are then manufactured in France.

The airborne and ground robots collaborate on a mission (Photo credit: ECA)

A couple of weeks ago ECA demonstrated how an RPAS can be used in conjunction with a land robot to solve the problem that “no robot is a jack-of-all-trades”, as Bertrand Darras, the military and defence advisor for ECA explained. A robot must observe, detect and identify something out of the ordinary. “It can fill one or several of these tasks,” Darras said, but not all of them “so one needs more than one robot.” In the demonstration the airborne and combat-proven IT 180 (or DroGen) with its 180cm wingspan handled the observation and detection tasks while the Iguana ground robot handled the identification job. Both were operated by the same person.

Iguana investigates the inside of the abandoned car (Photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

The scenario was to check whether an apparently abandoned car, out of sight of the robots’ operator, contained anything dangerous. The IT 180 flew over the car, sending real-time video images back to the operator. Using these videos, the operator was able to “drive” the Iguana to the car at which point the Iguana’s own two colour night/day cameras came into play as the “eyes” to see whether it contained a suspicious package.

The Iguana equipped with its high-powered water jet to destroy IEDs (Photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

The Iguana’s manipulator arm has a vertical reach of up to 2.8m and a horizontal reach of up to 1.8m allowing it to look into the cabin of a truck, for example. Anything suspicious would have been destroyed by the Iguana’s high-speed water jet.

One operator can control both the RPAS and the ground robot (Photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

The mission would have been impossible without the video stream from the IT 180 as it not only guided the operator to the vehicle but then kept watch for any suspicious activity around the vehicle.

The video stream sent in real-time by the DroGen allows the operator to see what the drone is dong ad keep an eye on the area surrounding the mission (Photo credit: ECA)

The IT 180 rotorcraft has been modified, Darras said, in the wake of lessons learned from the French military Barkhane operation in central Africa where it has been deployed since last June. “They like it very much in operation because they can observe the whole area, it is quick to set-up [no tools needed, everything just snaps or slots into place], and because of its shape it can operate in wind and heat that would ground other RPASs,” he said.

The IT 180, or DroGen, uses it contrarotating blades to fly to a ceiling of 3,000m although it has already been landed at 4,500m altitude. It has a maximum speed of up to 70 kph (Photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

Questioned as to its advantages over the hand-held devices which an individual soldier can deploy whereas the 25kg DroGen needs to be transported in three cases, Darras argued that “hand-held one don’t stay in the air as long, the cameras are not as good, you cannot give them way-points, they are sensitive to the wind and they don’t cover as wide an area.” DroGen can fly in winds up to 60 kph.

Ponsot explained that the RPAS cannot be controlled by a hacker, but for obvious reasons would not say why. However, if the signal from the operator is lost, DroGen will automatically rise 50m to see if it can catch the signal and if not, then it lands.

The IT 180 was first bought by French forces for Afghanistan where the challenge was to observe roads to check for possible IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Since then several versions have been developed, turning the RPAS into a “family”. The IT180-30, IT180-60, IT180-120 have an endurance of 30, 60 and 120 minutes respectively and can all fly in temperatures of up to 40ºC although only the IT180-60 can operate in temperatures of -20ºC, the other two being limited to -10ºC. The first two can carry payloads of 3kg whilst the IT180-120 can carry up to 5kg.


*unmanned ground vehicle