HAMMELBURG MAJOR TRAINING AREA, Germany --- Deep in the Bavarian countryside, more than 30 contractors and universities from eight European nations gathered this May to present their state-of-the-art robotic systems at the first European Land Robot (Elrob) trials – primarily with a view to demonstrating their military potential. Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall Defence was on hand with by far the most comprehensive range of vehicles, including systems from its subsidiaries Rheinmetall Landsysteme (RLS), Rheinmetall Defence Electronics (RDE) and telerob.
The US military has long deployed robotic systems. In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, it uses small, remotely operated vehicles to patrol hazardous routes and to detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices. For the first time in Europe, the organizers of Elrob 2006 – the German Army Office and the FGAN-Wachtberg Research Institute – created a forum where suppliers and potential users could obtain a detailed overview of the latest European developments and possible military uses of robotic technology. Organizers and observers agree that Elrob provided participants with a unique opportunity to demonstrate possible mission scenarios under virtually real-world conditions: after all, Hammelburg is also home to the German Army's Infantry School.
One of the key suppliers participating in the event was Rheinmetall Defence. The Düsseldorf-based group – which is also Germany's centre of competence for UAV technology – has been actively involved in EOD robotic activities for years; the R&D focus is now very much on minimizing the risk to personnel deployed in harm's way.
Among the various contractors taking part in the event, Rheinmetall presented by far the widest range of systems. RLS of Kiel introduced its multi-mission-capable Trobot vehicle and Wiesel 2 Digital, which serves as the command and control station for the Quattrocopter aerial reconnaissance system. Also on hand was the new telemax robotic system developed by RLS subsidiary telerob of Ostfildern.
A further focus of interest was RLS's Caracal (part of its family of armoured command and multipurpose vehicles) – here equipped with a driving robot. telerob also displayed its highly successful tEODor bomb disposal robot, which is already in service in numerous countries; Bremen-based RDE brandished its mobile reconnaissance robot Foxbot.
Conducted on four prepared courses (unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive devices; urban and non-urban), the product demonstrations met with considerable interest on the part of government officials and military representatives. telerob sales manager Christian Herbst was particularly pleased with the performance of the new telemax robot: "The little brother of our successful tEODor robot, it was the only vehicle to demonstrate its capabilities on all four courses (UXO, IED, urban and non-urban). Representatives from the German military and other armed forces (the Dutch, for instance) were really impressed by the functional capabilities of the system, which is used to neutralize explosives; the advantages of the TCP manipulator control system were plain to see."
telerob also proved that remotely operated robotic systems can be put to other uses besides the neutralization of explosives. "In the medium to long term, I think we'll be broadening our market base in this area", predicts Herbst. Incidentally, the German Ministry of the Interior recently placed an order for six telemax robotic systems.
Commenting on the successful Elrob premiere, Dr. Hermann Grosch, head of New Technologies at Rheinmetall Landsysteme GmbH in Unterluess, notes that "our Trobot vehicle, in which we've implemented the Smover concept for the first time, shows that a robotics capability can basically be integrated into any 'large' vehicle. Of course, the vehicle can still be used as a conventional manned vehicle, and Trobot will be used in unmanned mode only when the tactical situation makes it necessary." This gives it an important advantage over special vehicles which can only be used in robotic mode and thus require considerable logistic support.
Grosch points out that the Elrob presentation makes clear that robotic applications are by no means limited to unmanned driving. "Robotics need to take account of the specific mission equipment – a crucial technical feature of the Smover concept, in fact. This explains why the German Army's Air Mobile Corps is so interested in the basic Trobot vehicle, a Centaur made by Ontario Drive & Gear of New Hamburg, Ontario, which has been converted by RLS: it has excellent off-road capabilities, you can airdrop it and it's even amphibious." As Grosch goes on to say, "the positive response during the four-day event in Hammelburg has prompted us to look into whether it would make sense to market the system as an independent product soon."
For its part, RDE's Foxbot mobile reconnaissance robot, demonstrated its capabilities in no uncertain terms. As RDE robotics expert Dr. Klaus-Peter explains, "our system performed very well on the urban and the non-urban course, and the feedback from military observers was very encouraging. Representatives from the German MoD, the contracting agency BWB, the Army Office and Army Schools were obviously extremely impressed by the state-of-the-art technology on show."
Developed under contract for BWB, Foxbot is a mobile robotic system designed for use with the Fennek reconnaissance vehicle. The system was recently delivered to the German Army's Armour School in Munster for field trials.