Can game console technology find roadside bombs?

While it can already be found in some of the most popular handheld devices and video game consoles, Markham, Ont.-based Quanser Consulting Ltd. hopes to take haptic technology – which merges tactile sensation and control to interaction with computer applications – to uncharted terrain with a tour of duty in the Canadian military.

With financial support from the National Research Council Canada, Quanser has begun developing a prototype technology for use in a fully-haptic controlled Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV). These remotely controlled vehicles are often used by the military to detect and eliminate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) hidden across unexplored land.

Paul Gilbert, CEO at Quanser, said implementing haptic control into the UGVs sensors will allow users to “feel” what’s happening to their remote unit, giving them a better sense of how to navigate difficult terrain. UGVs in the field today, he said, have to travel at slow speeds and can sometimes accidentally flip-over when attempting to navigate bumpy roads.

“If you were driving down the street and weren’t able to feel the road, you’re probably not going to notice that you’re going over bumps and potholes until it’s too late,” Gilbert said. “In an ATV, you would be bouncing around and become unstable. With the UGVs today, there might be some visual cues or video coming back, but they’re not going to get any sense of what the road surface is through the joysticks they use.”

But it might not be long before these older UGV units are a thing of the past. According to a spokesperson with Canada’s Armed Forces, any technology that can improve the speed and functionality of its current UGVs will be something to consider for the future.

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“Traditionally in warfare, one of the purposes in creating an obstacle on the road is to stop a convoy, so speed matters in the resolution of these obstacles,” Capt. Bob Kennedy, public affairs officer with the 32 Canadian Brigade Group, said. “Certainly more information arriving in the hands of the people trying to deal with the obstacle ahead is a good thing.”

Kennedy said that many of the vehicles the military is currently using to combat IEDs as well as more traditional landmines depend on being pretty close to the target.

“And in some cases, they actually have to get in contact with it,” he said. “If this turns out to be a better solution than we have now, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t eventually be using this.”

But to get haptic control up and running, Gilbert said, the communication between the user and the remote UGV has to become instantaneous. To achieve accurate haptic control, he said, requires a closed loop rate of 1000 Hz – which means the machine and the user must be able to communicate with input and output information at a minimum of 1000 times a second.

“If there’s a time delay between what the robot is experiencing and what the person who’s controlling it is experiencing the reaction is going to be late and you won’t be able to operate the vehicle properly,” Gilbert said. “We’re not only receiving data from the robot, we’re also sending signals to it. Because of this, that whole loop has to be as fast as possible.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Quanser centres on the use of this haptic loop over the dedicated wireless network.

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“Wireless communication may be fast for the average user today, but it’s not really fast enough for haptic,” Jacob Apkarian, CTO at Quanser, said. “So, we’re looking into other wireless technologies as well as incorporating other software and control methods to compensate for these issues,”

Another challenges Quanser’s technical team is looking to address include the ability to retrofit existing UGVs, as well as the allowing for haptic controls of the robotic arm that is often attached to the bomb defusal vehicles. Ultimately, Apkarian hopes to see not only haptic driving, but also haptic manipulation of objects.

“Once they want to dispose of a bomb, they can actually feel the weight of it or make sure it’s not stuck on something,” Apkarian said.

Developing this remote manipulation, he said, will also have implications in a variety of other fields including telesurgery, hazardous waste removal, nuclear reactor maintenance, border patrol and mine shaft exploration. Quanser will continue development through the year and aims to have a working prototype by 2009.

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