and Force-Multiplying Exoskeletons in the Military: Insights from U.S. Army Veteran and Sarcos Robotics Vice President Jim Miller
Autonomous systems and exoskeletons are moving from the drawing board and into operational use in various fields including manufacturing and logistics, and it would be no surprise to anyone if autonomous systems were to join in the defense arena as well. Unmanned Ariel Vehicles and Unmanned Ground Vehicles are already in use and the use cases for such technologies provide many advantages, including keeping the operator out of harm’s way. With this in mind, we had the opportunity to interview Retired Colonel James (Jim) Miller, who is now the Vice President of Defense Solutions for Sarcos Robotics, a leader in the production of robots that augment humans to enhance productivity and safety.
Jim Miller joined Sarcos after serving over 29 years on active duty in the U.S. Army, retiring as a Colonel in the Special Forces. Miller’s time in service culminated with a three-year stint in U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, working as Director of the Joint Acquisition Task Force Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (JATF TALOS) project, tasked with design and development of the “Ironman Suit.” Miller directed an integrated product team of Senior Operators from multiple services including Army Green Berets and Rangers, Marine Raiders and Navy SEALS, talented design engineers and technical subject matter experts. This opportunity leveraged Miller’s leadership skills as well as his operational background and allowed him to bring those skills to the world of acquisitions, technology and logistics. The overall goal of the TALOS project was to enhance individual operators in the special operations forces with decisive advantage in close combat through implementation of far-reaching technology applications.
Now, as Vice President of Defense Solutions for Sarcos Robotics, Miller is able to use many of his learnings from the TALOS project, as well as the relationships he built within and outside of the military community and apply them to his new role. According to Miller, Sarcos has been focused on continuing the relationships with the U.S. military that have existed since the early days of the company, and particularly during the time that Sarcos was owned by Raytheon Corp. from 2007-2014. Miller says that his goal is to continue to help resolve the capability gaps that exist within the military community and to educate stakeholders on how Sarcos’ Guardian XO exoskeleton, which is their force-multiplying, full-body autonomously powered exoskeleton, can provide a safer, more productive and more efficient workplaces, particularly when it comes to logistics and sustainment applications.
Q: How do you see the development of autonomous and robotic technology within the armed forces?
A: The U.S. military has been looking into robotic and autonomous systems for a number of years and has been seeking to figure out what the best fit is for the force structure as well as the different types of environments the branches operate in. Frankly, the technology is not quite there yet to provide fully autonomous capabilities, in particular when considering lethal applications – the human remains in the loop and the combination of man and machine has provided the surety needed to complete particular tasks. The military remains cautious as these technologies mature to future battlefields and it remains to be seen what exactly will happen in the near-term as well as in future operating environments.
Q: What types of robotics do you think will be most effective for both front line and logistics personnel? Are they hybrid technologies or perhaps autonomous systems?
A: With time, the industry will find which capabilities work best for the various use cases. Right now, we are looking at the application of the full-body, fully powered exoskeleton to provide strength and augmentation to human performance, which we feel is best applied to the logistics or sustainment area. This technology will force-multiply, either indirectly or possibly even directly, those front-line combat [infantry] units, by providing the logistical capacity for them to move forward with agility and lethality.
There is also a lot of creative thought being applied to the vision for autonomous systems and how these technologies will be integrated into the multi-domain environment (air, land, space and cyberspace) that we will see in the future. There will be an evolution over time. The faster that we can integrate these types of technologies, with the most creativity, will provide a decisive advantage for the U.S. in all types of warfighting situations. But for right now, what is most achievable are the human-enabling support mechanisms like the exoskeleton.
Q: How far can the industry take autonomy in regard to exoskeleton applications?
A: Currently, the most prudent application of exoskeleton technologies is to keep the human in the loop for robotic mechanism performance. Keeping the human directly involved—or teamed directly off the robot—for its decision-making is imperative as AI and ML capabilities improve. Basic tasks are achievable autonomously right now, and they will only improve as deep learning becomes more extensive. Autonomy, as it exists today, isn’t acceptable for some defense applications. The next steps are to get really good at integrating humans with robotic systems in order to develop a bridging strategy to ensure the application of an independent autonomous system, with a machine learning capacity, behaves as intended.
Q: Would you ever take the decision away from the human being and let it all become automated?
A: That is contingent upon what kind of decision we are talking about. There are a broad range of decision-making capabilities to consider when determining the best application for integrating the human directly with a robot. We want to preserve human intelligence and couple it with the strength, endurance and precision provided by the robot to operate safely, effectively and in a more productive manner over time. Autonomous decision making will be progressively integrated and mature over time based on the direct application. Robots can learn simple tasks like how to help you walk better, but as the complexity of the decision-making increases, autonomy of the robot in an uncertain environment decreases, or is less achievable, at this point in time.
Q: How is Sarcos developing technology to assist the military?
A: We are currently focused on our full-body, fully powered exoskeleton, the Guardian XO, for logistics capabilities in the military. This is very similar to what we are working on for civilian industries as well—logistical, sustainment capacity in a number of industrial environments like automotive, aviation, industrial manufacturing, oil & gas, construction and others. Any environment where the worker is conducting repeated tasks that involve heavy, awkward, sustained and repetitive lifts is ideal for our exoskeleton. We have developed robotic systems that provide enhanced endurance, strength, and efficiency to reduce the strain on the human worker, which reduces injuries, as well as to reduce the number of people or the amount of time required for specific tasks. This can be applied to many scenarios in defense such as Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) procedures, loading ammunition into aircraft, or moving boxes in a warehouse or off a pallet in a deployed and austere environment.
Q: Will we see Sarcos developing robotic systems for front line infantry?
A: We will continue to work with the military to design robotic systems that meet their needs. A front-line infantry application is a practical evolution, providing the technology supports the dynamic movement that would likely be necessary in that use case. We are demonstrating highly functioning prototypes and getting feedback from our military customers. I think Sarcos is uniquely positioned to take on this challenge given the company’s knowledge, experience and its investor base, along with its contributions and long lineage of success, not only in the military, but in the private industry as well.
Q: What is the current relationship between DARPA and Sarcos?
A: Sarcos has a long-standing, close relationship with DARPA, in particular with our founders and engineering team, as they have worked closely on applications using our innovative and complex technology. We will continue to work collaboratively with DARPA to rapidly evolve and integrate novel advanced technologies into exoskeleton and other robotic mechanisms. Sarcos will continue to demonstrate its technical proficiency with providing the capabilities they have challenged us to deliver.
Q: How do you believe Sarcos will develop product lines for the military of the future?
A: I envision that a transformational technology transition will occur based on the successful achievement of developing the autonomously powered, full-body capability of our exoskeletons. The Guardian XO will be a dynamic force multiplier to Department of Defense logistics systems and will dramatically enhance long term human performance, resilience and resistance to injury. There are a number of benefits and ways to expand beyond what Sarcos is already developing with the Guardian XO, including the integration of advanced AI/ML applications. Additionally, we have some independent tele-optically controlled systems, like the Guardian GT, that can perform work for humans in challenging or unsafe environments while providing them exponential strength required to finish a complex and challenging task successfully, such as what might be seen at a nuclear site decommissioning activity or Naval shipyard. Sarcos’ modular sensor platforms for inspection surveillance or testing, as well as unmanned aerial vehicle technologies, will also be beneficial to the defense industry and are areas we are looking at expanding defense contributions for the future.