WWT R&D Develops Subterranean Robotic Vehicle to Save Lives for U.S. Special Operations Forces
For decades, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have been deployed to perform dangerous reconnaissance tasks that would otherwise fall to human assets at tremendous potential personal risk. As robotics technology has advanced, so has the sophistication and functionality of UGVs.
World Wide Technology (WWT) was asked to develop an advanced UGV to be deployed by special operations forces for high-risk operations in treacherous environments such as abandoned mines, natural caves and other subterranean pockets. The UGV would be the operators eyes providing situational awareness of what's waiting for them around the next turn in an abandoned mine or down a bunker staircase. Through a novel iterative process of "develop, test, refine," WWT's Public Sector Research and Development (R&D) team produced an innovative, highly performant yet cost-effective "Nightcrawler" UGV to function under very specific environmental challenges in order to help protect lives in already-risky operations.
Watch our Nightcrawler demonstration video (5:12)
Inspiration drives WWT Public Sector R&D's unique and customized Nightcrawler UGV
WWT remains on the leading edge of innovation through the tireless work of our Public Sector R&D group as it envisions, creates, tests and refines new products and technologies to solve real-world challenges. It is R&D's varied and specialized expertise in engineering, design, development, and optimization that leads to imaginative products leveraging the technology that is continually on display in our Advanced Technology Center, where WWT tests and validates unique customer solutions such as the next iteration of Nightcrawler.
The Public Sector R&D group had developed its own radio-controlled vehicle equipped with multiple camera arrays for the purpose of collecting visual data and experimenting with potential product applications. WWT demonstrated the vehicle for a DoD customer, who was impressed with its innovation and saw possibilities for addressing certain unmet reconnaissance needs. As a result, R&D set to work through an iterative development process that, test after test, led to a fully functioning prototype solution that met all requirements.
Our unique R&D development process began with an understanding of the DoD's specific needs and challenges to create an initial design to test – exploring the possibilities of what could be built. WWT then developed and transported each latest version of the UGV to an onsite testing environment to run an evolving course of drill simulations to determine what did and did not work and identify any additional needs or gaps to enhance the product. The features of the UGV expanded as the R&D group and our military customer recognized new possibilities for what the vehicle could do.
Custom-built for the exceptional challenges facing special operations forces
As part of our process for understanding the needs of the US military's top teams, WWT's Public Sector R&D group was introduced to their day-to-day challenges of extreme elements and rough terrain potentially populated by hostile forces.
Given these on-the-ground conditions, our third-generation UGV steadily evolved to meet the requirements of special operations forces operations while mitigating hazards and maximizing the usefulness of the gear and technology operators were already carrying. Those capabilities included:
- Reliable communications in remote environments – Missions usually are carried out in parts of the world that are lacking 5G, Bluetooth, cloud computing and other civilian-type forms of connectivity. For that reason, the UGV solution needed to be able to work in that environment in the absence of those common connectivity resources.
- Leveraging existing hardware – DoD customers prefer whenever possible to utilize current, familiar technology as much as they can – it's more economical and easy to adopt, with almost no learning curve.
- Accurate environmental mapping – The UGV must provide crucial intelligence that reveals a high-resolution, and real-time look at what's waiting around the turns of the abandoned mine or bends in the trail.
Multisensory elements equip Nightcrawler for front-line effectiveness
In partnership with Intel, the latest Nightcrawler UGV iteration combines diverse yet complementary intelligence-gathering features in a unique, cohesive solution. WWT delivered the detection vehicle our forces needed, in part, by leveraging the expertise of our technology partners, including Intel. Their contributions to the UGV include:
- Intel® RealSense™ cameras for 3D vision and optical vision as cameras mounted on the front and back of the UGV provide for depth modeling.
- FLIR Boson thermal imaging cameras to capture infrared (IR) band for thermal data – calibrated for the body heat signature of an enemy combatant, for example, while ignoring irrelevant heat sources.
- Improved visibility with Thermal Fusion. By fusing thermal data on top of optical data, the user only receives relevant thermal data such as the presence of a human subject. This data is then displayed as an overlay on top of the optical data, relieving the user of having to switch between cameras. With thermal fusion, the UGV operator can maneuver with greater confidence, and team leaders can achieve enhanced situational awareness.
- Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) for improved mapping with remote sensory capability for generating live, accurate 2D maps in real time allowing for a 1:1 map of the abandoned mine or location. With LIDAR, operators receive a true to form view of what they'll encounter within a cave or structure with improved accuracy and minimal latency.
- A specialized plugin written for Nightcrawler by WWT to control the UGV. Nightcrawler uses the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), a military app that allows for precision targeting, situation awareness, data sharing and other combat functions, already being used by soldiers.
- Tactical radio communication transmission using MANET (mobile ad hoc network) "meshing" radios to share vital data. Nightcrawler itself is radio agnostic and can use any IP based radio an operator may be carrying. Using MANET MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) radios, Nightcrawler can reach distances of more than 250 feet non-line of sight in a subterranean environment.
- Intel® Core™ M3 CPU for increased performance in a highly compact form factor. Using a single board computer featuring an Intel® Core™ M3 processor, Nightcrawler has more than enough compute power on board to process all data.
- UGV control through a common and familiar gaming console that virtually every operator grew up using – but intuitive enough for non-gamers to learn easily. This reduces the learning curve dramatically and adds the advantage of easy replaceability.
- A common, low-cost RC car body and components for simplified maintenance allowing for in-place parts replacement, repairs and upgrades, a more efficient and cost-effective alternative than flying a damaged UGV to a repair facility thousands of miles away.
WWT Public Sector R&D is already at work on what's next
WWT's research and development group is critical to our mission of continuous innovation, enabling us to create and test new solutions to meet our customers' specific, evolving and unique challenges.
The Nightcrawler UGV was but one example of our R&D's iterative process that produced practical technology that helps our special operations forces to carry out dangerous missions while reducing the risk to American lives. WWT has a long record of successful engagements with our Federal customers on projects as diverse as building a COVID response machine and Mobile Field Kit, to machine learning, sensor integration, thermal imaging, and more. Our Public Sector R&D teams are among the US military's key technology allies who are hard at work developing a range of communications-related assets, including the next generation of intelligence-gathering drone vehicles.