$26.4 Million Grant for Gladiator Vehicle Development

Carnegie Mellon University succeeded over Lockheed Martin this past week when researchers at CMU's Robotics Institute won a design and development contract from the U.S. government. We are entering an age where investors are realizing that educational institutions can innovate just as well as - or better than - multinational corporations.

Last Monday, CMU representatives were notified that they had won a $26.4 million government contract to design and develop what may become the future of battlefield reconnaissance and defense: the Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle, or TUGV. Carnegie Mellon researchers have been working on stages of the project since 2002.

Weighing one ton and resting on six wheels, the Gladiator is controlled remotely and can be outfitted with an array of sensor technology to detect possible hazards to soldiers. Although reports are vague as to what sensors might be used, the Post-Gazette reports that they will be able to detect "enemy positions, barbed wire, mines, and even chemical, biological or nuclear threats."

"It's not a coincidence that they [the Department of Defense's Joint Program Office for Robotic Systems] pick a university over a multi-billion-dollar business," says CMU's lead scientist on the project, Dimitrius Apostolopoulos. "What it means for CMU is the recognition, the motivation to push for greater and bigger things that will make the University even more recognized."

The project began in 2002 with the first of two initial development phases. After ten months, a second phase began prototyping a test vehicle. "In February 2004 we demonstrated a prototype in Quantico," said Apostolopoulos, "where the Marines have a testing site. We did a second demonstration in July 2004." The first of these tests focused on the mobility of the Gladiator - its range, speed, and ability to negotiate terrain - while the second was performed during both day and night and was "primarily about its reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities," said Apostolopoulos.

Don Smith, the vice-president of economic development for the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, said that focusing research on unmanned vehicles like the Gladiator TUGV demonstrated the military's goal to keep American soldiers out of the line of fire. "Under the Future Combat Systems Initiative," he said, "the military is trying to change their vehicles to unmanned vehicles." The Future Combat Systems Initiative has a budget of over $100 billion, with the mission of revamping military hardware with networked interfaces and improve communication on the battlefield. The Gladiator is one result of this program, which seeks to increase the ratio of manned to unmanned vehicles to 3:1 by 2015. "It's a reconnaissance vehicle," said Smith.

Although the Carnegie Robotics Institute will design the Gladiator and develop its technology, it has multiple partners to see the project through production. "Since the beginning we tried to synthesize a team that has the right partners," said Apostolopoulos. "We needed to have partners in this that would do, for instance, the communication system for the robot, [and] other partners that would do the whole armoring for the vehicle." CMU researchers have partnered with defense contractor United Defense in order to produce up to 200 production units by 2007. "Obviously making this deal with United Defense is critical ... They will fabricate and produce this vehicle eventually."

United Defense's director of communications for their ground systems division, Herb Muktarian, said that his company has been contracted to help develop and manufacture two such autonomous vehicles for the military. The variant under contract with CMU, he said, will provide "reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition," while the second "Assault" variant will "provide direct and indirect fire under remote control in support of mounted and dismounted operations." United Defense has been working on the project with Carnegie Mellon since late 2003.

Although in the past there have been student protests at CMU's Software Institute regarding the University's ties to military research, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Student Pugwash president Chris Sequeira said that was not his primary concern. Instead, he stressed that the Robotics Institute should be wary of contract stipulations and freedom of information regarding their research. "Students and faculty must be allowed to decide for themselves if they really want to work for the military," he said. When asked what he thought of a university accepting military grant funding, he replied: "The simple fact of the matter is that [the Department of Defense] is a gigantic funding engine; 'manna from heaven' is a bit hard to ignore."

The University officially announced that they have accepted the Gladiator grant, and will add the project to the Robotics Institute's growing list of projects accomplished in unmanned vehicles since 1984. "The more important thing for Carnegie Mellon," said Smith, "is we're seeing robotics technology - which was once seen as more of a fascination - start to have mainstream applications. Not just in the military, but also in entertainment technology and assisted living. [Now that] the commercial markets are starting to catch up, this presents a great economic development opportunity for southwest Pennsylvania."