December 2005/January 2006 
Volume 04, Issue 8 
Special Feature

I Robot

Charles Erignac, autonomous systems scientist

Boeing is quietly developing the autonomous and intelligent technologies that promise to bring the robots of science fiction to life


It's 2050, and heavily protected U.S. troops equipped with advanced combat weapons are advancing through the smoke of battle onto a critical enemy position. Suddenly, one of the soldiers steps on an undetected land mine. The resulting explosion is fatal to eight of the soldiers.

But the battlefield commanders will have no reason to inform next of kin or even mourn the loss of the combatants. For these "soldiers" are made of advanced materials and electronic systems, not flesh and blood, and they are expendable. They are programmed, intelligent robots with the ability to reason, make decisions and perform efficiently in the heat of battle. They are also part of an expanding portfolio of potential autonomous products, which include unmanned vehicles that will travel in the air, on the ground, in space and on or below the water.

Other uses for intelligent systems

Autonomous and intelligent systems are not limited to physical robots. These technologies will play a critical role in advanced network and information systems. For example:

• Robust networking in dynamic environments, military and civilian: Software systems can be designed and programmed with algorithms to intelligently and autonomously change and optimize the use of links in large, distributed computer networks. This will maintain overall functionality in the face of military conflict or natural disasters when computer nodes or linkages are damaged or threatened.

• Computer security, intrusion detection: Intelligent software "watchdogs" can roam computer networks to detect and isolate unauthorized intrusions of secure systems.

• Information and knowledge discovery: fusion and presentation: Intelligent software can be developed to sift through many terabytes, and more, of "raw" data, searching for patterns that foresee new or abnormal patterns in machine vibrations that could be indicative of impending failure.

• Intelligent vehicle health maintenance and prognosis: Warfighters are equipped with sensors to monitor hardware and software health and operational readiness. The onboard integrated vehicle health management systems could automatically interact with shipboard operations and logistics systems to schedule repair or replacement of damaged systems, replenishment of expended munitions or even mandatory recertification training for pilots and crew.

Obedient mechanical warriors that take on high-risk missions too dangerous for real soldiers have long been a staple fantasy for futurists. Because thinking robots mimic the human mind and human behavior, they are perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the autonomous and intelligent systems being developed at Boeing that include

• Ground vehicles that can safely enter areas stricken by natural disasters or contaminated by nuclear fallout or biochemical or biological weapons for search and rescue.

• Military cargo "mules," intelligent, semi-autonomous vehicles that would follow troops into the field and would be able to operate autonomously if separated from the soldier. Others would serve as convoys on roads prone to attack from the air and ground.

• Fleets of intelligent, semiautonomous personal air vehicles or combination car-helicopters that could be operated in the most congested conditions with no more training than it takes to drive a car.

• Teams of robots that will travel to the moon and Mars to prepare an infrastructure that will enable human habitation.

Robotics in Bellevue

In Bellevue, Wash., a team of Boeing engineers and scientists, most of whom grew up reading the works of Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov and other science fiction legends, are developing the enabling technologies that promise to change the face of warfare, transportation and space exploration.

There, technologists are researching and advancing the state of the art in such disciplines as autonomy architectures, software agents, human-system interfaces, and ontologies and semantic integration (technologies by which machines might understand language-based communication). They are working on world modeling and localization, swarm-based control, machine learning and reasoning approaches, and optimization techniques, among others.

The labs are filled with a variety of robots large and small, one with mechanical arms and another propelled Segway style. Those robots were by far the biggest draw at a Boeing Technology Exposition and Exchange, or Tech Expo, in Seattle earlier this year. A demonstration by tiny red robots on wheels using cameras to locate and report threats they encountered was broadcast on local television and was extensively covered in the print media.

But publicity is not enough in an increasingly competitive business.

"Autonomous and intelligent systems could be a big part of Boeing's future," says Cathy Kitto, senior manager for Intelligent Information Systems at Phantom Works, the advanced research-and-development unit. "There is incredible business potential for the kind of products these technologies will generate. What is going to differentiate us from our competitors is the sophistication and robustness of the technologies we develop."

Phantom Works manager Michael Abraham (in foreground) and engineer Jacki Wilson Several Boeing programs, such as the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) and Phantom Works' Advanced Unmanned Systems organization and Advanced Platform Systems Thrust are working on near-term autonomous programs of their own. Phantom Works' Mike Abraham, for example, is using scale UAVs called Bats as a surrogate technology test platform for such unmanned programs as X-45 and ScanEagle. His efforts include finding technologies that allow multiple vehicles to work cooperatively to accomplish a common task. He is essentially trying to make the systems less dependent on human intervention and make them think for themselves.

Mike Kerstetter, manager of Adaptive Systems within Kitto's unit, who also leads Autonomous and Intelligent Systems within the Phantom Works enabling technology program, is working hard to make the long-term prospects possible.

"I agree that most of the products and processes that Boeing will be pursuing in the future will contain some autonomous and intelligent behavior," he says. "We might not even be driving cars 50 to 75 years from now. They will be driven for us by intelligent systems, and they might also be able to fly."

Texas-born Kerstetter, an imposing figure who once wanted to be an astronaut but discovered he was too tall, says not many people realize that washing machines and elevators are examples of very rudimentary autonomous systems, with little, if any, of the "intelligence" we associate with human activities.

But more intelligent computer systems are already showing up in the world around us, particularly in automotive applications.

"'Smart' systems dynamically control engine fuel, air intake and gear shifting to optimize performance and maximize fuel mileage," says Kerstetter. "Safety systems attempt to discern from inertial sensors when to deploy airbags for driver and passenger safety, for example. These represent relatively rudimentary implementations of intelligent computing systems. However, some auto makers are looking to implement cruise control systems that are able to use proximity sensors to maintain safe spacing between vehicles. This demonstrates that intelligent systems are gradually becoming more sophisticated and useful."

Scott Smith, an Associate Technical Fellow and autonomous systems scientistBut intelligent systems go beyond platforms, he points out: "There will be super handheld devices, virtual librarians capable of researching everything there is to know in the world about the African fruit fly, for instance. We'll be talking to our houses, giving them instructions on what to prepare for dinner two weeks from now. The system will check that the ingredients are available, order them if necessary, oversee payment and delivery and issue invitations to specified guests, arranging for alternative menu items to accommodate any special needs."

Working to save lives

Perhaps the most dramatic benefit will be in the saving of lives.

"Robotic search and rescue, both military and civilian, holds out tremendous promise," he says. "It can save downed pilots in hostile territory, lost or missing firefighters and ordinary civilians during natural disasters. Imagine small, autonomous boats or helicopter-type vehicles, interconnected by wireless network s and equipped with visual, audio and other sensors, being used to search for survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They wouldn't be hindered by flood waters or put at risk by hazardous chemicals, and large numbers of them could cover large areas more quickly."

Robots, he said, could be used to map out and search dangerous urban warfare environments in advance of sending in squads of soldiers, and robots could maintain surveillance of designated areas.

And autonomous robotics will play a crucial role in exploring our solar system and beyond. Long communications lag times, says Kerstetter, make remote control of robots impractical, so autonomous teams of robots are needed to explore and help prepare Moon and Mars sites for human habitation. Teams of humans and robots will work together to build habitations and conduct scientific operations. On Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, completely autonomous robots will drill through the ice and explore the ocean for signs of life.

"All of these concepts should provide a strong motivation for Boeing to understand autonomous and intelligent systems and become proficient in their use and implementation," he says. "That way we will develop a reputation within the research, government and business communities as a center of activity in these fields."

And that's something that Boeing can do intelligently—but not autonomously.


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