On the way to IraqEngineers develop robotic tractor

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DAYTON, Ohio – Engineers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base are designing, building and testing a more advanced, robotic trenching tractor so combat engineers can perform cable trenching and excavation missions in dangerous locations.

An early version of the tractor was developed last year and used in Iraq.

Trenching. Air Force Research Laboratory’s materials and manufacturing directorate engineers are integrating robotic components onto a modified commercial trenching tractor.

The components were originally developed for the group’s all-purpose remote transport system, a technology used for force protection and active range-clearance activities.

Robo tractor. The conversion package, known as Robo Trencher, allows operators to remotely control all tractor functions including engine start and stop, propulsion, lights and tool operation, said Maj. Timothy Schulteis.

He is the laboratory materials and manufacturing directorate technical director for the robotics research and development group.

Danger zone. Officials from the 738th Engineering Installation Squadron inquired about robotic technologies because their people twice encountered unexploded ordnance during manual trenching operations in Afghanistan, the major said.

To meet the squadron’s deployment schedule, engineers from the laboratory’s airbase technologies division robotics research group began developing a short-order solution, using the squadron’s existing hardware.

The result. The result is a trenching tractor that includes fixed, panable video cameras and digital radios which transmit command signals from the operator control unit to the vehicle, he said.

Additionally, an independent transmitter-receiver pair sends audio and video information from the vehicle to the controller.

The standard control station includes an operator console with command-input devices – joysticks and switches – and video monitor, a control station data encoder and transmitter, data and video receivers, antennas, and a video and audio recorder, Schulteis said.

It is also equipped with situational awareness and Global Positioning System tracking and location capabilities

Working. The trenching tractor is designed for a full range of underground construction work, including installing power and communications cable.

It has a rugged one-piece frame, heavy-duty digging booms, and chains and teeth for tough digging conditions, including rocky soils and frost.

Laboratory engineers developed this second Robo Trencher based on feedback from 738th Engineering Installation Squadron members who said the first one had already established its value during Operation Iraqi Freedom, said Lt. Col. Phillip Baca, 738th Engineering Installation Squadron commander.

First tractor. The first trenching tractor was delivered to the squadron in mid-July 2003, said Capt. Chris Miller, squadron rapid response flight commander and Robo Trencher project officer.

Following two weeks of “home testing,” experts flew the system from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., to Iraq to support communication cable installation and base infrastructure requirements.

“The second version of the system includes features to make it an even more user friendly and intuitive system,” Miller said.

Officials expect to deliver it in August.

“When faced with potentially treacherous or dangerous situations, our engineers now have the option of using the robotic capabilities of the system, which will keep them safe and allow them to accomplish their mission,” Miller said.

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