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CONTACT: Julie Clausen, 505-844-0948,


SARGE Robot is Latest Battlefield Standard

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- For years, both the Army and the Marines have been seeking to develop battlefield robots that could reduce risk to soldiers by performing some of their more dangerous duties. SARGE, the latest in a long line of prototype battlefield robots, is designed to do just that.

SARGE was developed at Sandia National Laboratories primarily to engage in remote surveillance, as evidenced by its full name -- Surveillance And Reconnaissance Ground Equipment. Unlike the walking, talking, metal humanoid Hollywood robots with lasers for eyes, SARGE is a much simpler machine. A Descendant of Dixie

SARGE and its predecessors have all been four-wheeled, remote-controlled vehicles -- not a humanoid part on them. SARGE uses a commercial recreational "four-wheeler," a Yamaha Breeze, as its base platform. A roll cage has been added, and four video cameras -- two for surveillance and two for driving -- are attached to a pan/tilt platform. Everything -- steering, throttle, cameras -- can be remotely operated from a suitcase-size operational control unit (OCU) miles away.

SARGE is a direct descendant of Sandia's Dixie robot. Dixie was developed in the 1980s and was popular among its users because it was easy to operate, difficult to overturn, and reliable.

The customer for the new robot, the Unmanned Ground Vehicles/Systems Joint Project Office (UGV/S JPO), wanted something similar to Dixie. But Dixie was about six years old, and those involved thought that a number of improvements were necessary.

"Dixie far out-performed what was expected of her," said Tom Mayer, a SARGE engineer. "But SARGE gave us the chance to rebuild Dixie from the ground up."

For example, Dixie is teleoperated via a 1200-baud radio link, which coupled with the slow speed of its processor, causes a 75-millisecond delay between user command and machine response. Operators had to "drive ahead," or essentially plan for what was coming up because of the delay.

With SARGE, the goal was to decrease the lag time. SARGE's command/response delay is approximately 20 milliseconds, thanks to its much faster modern processors and communications equipment.

"We wanted to make it seem like the user was right on top of the machine, and I think we came pretty close," Mayer says.

The base platform was also upgraded. Dixie was built on a Honda 125, which relied solely on balloon tires for suspension and required the operator to shift gears while driving. SARGE's platform has a suspension system and a continuously variable transmission, which doesn't require shifting, making SARGE more stable at high speeds and easier to operate. Not a Substitute for Soldiers

In combat, it is often necessary to send a contingent of soldiers on reconnaissance. They carry out the risky mission of determining the enemy's position and assessing the situation.

With SARGE, this would be unnecessary. The robot could be sent ahead, and images captured by its video cameras would be relayed back to the OCU. If there is an enemy ambush, the number of casualties will be less than one.

SARGE is not intended to replace infantry soldiers. The Army and Marines want to use robotics to complement a soldier's abilities.

"Obviously, using a robot for surveillance is different from using a person," says SARGE project manager Bryan Pletta. "It's not going to be as good at some things as a person would be, with eyes and ears and a brain. But it doesn't get tired, it doesn't get hungry, it doesn't get sleepy -- and it's expendable."

SARGE is a prototype of what will eventually be standard battlefield equipment that will serve as a "force multiplier," something to increase soldier/Marine effectiveness and survivability -- the Teleoperated Unmanned Ground Vehicle (TUGV).

The final, complete TUGV (said "tug-vee") system will be produced by the hundreds and put into the armed forces inventory. Individual or multiple robots will be assigned to infantry units and battalions.

Gaining acceptance of the use of robotics among infantry soldiers may be a challenge. "Right now, using robotics is a pretty radical departure from the way they currently do things," Pletta says.

With SARGE, the JPO is involving soldiers in research and development of the final TUGV. A critical part of the project is the manufacture of eight to ten SARGE units to be given to infantry battalions, getting them involved in SARGE's development up-front.

"The program will actually give them to infantry battalions and say, 'This is yours, keep it. Take it home, learn how to use it. Try and figure out what you could do with it if you had one,'" Pletta says.

Soldier feedback will be used to guide subsequent phases of TUGV development.

The JPO is currently under contract with SUMMA Technologies Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., to build the new units, with Sandia operating as technical advisor.

Sandia is a multiprogram Department of Energy laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national defense, energy, environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

TECHNICAL CONTACTS: Tom Mayer (505) 844-5701; Bryan Pletta (505) 844-5912

Julie Clausen,

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Last modified: June 12, 2001

Sandia National Laboratories is operated by Lockheed Martin Corp. for the U.S. Department of Energy.