The arm slowly extends from the main body of the vehicle, a surprisingly smooth and deliberate action for so many rotating joints, as it seeks out the door of a pick-up truck a few feet away. In a matter of seconds, it has attached a small metal hook to the latch of the truck door and, with a little pressure, popped open the door. The arm, which carries a small camera just above its vice grip-like fingers, withdraws a few inches to adjust its aim, and then leans against the inside of the heavy door, prying it open. Again, the arm hesitates, and then begins to scan the inside the vehicle, poking its camera under and around the seats before eventually withdrawing.

The camera-mounted arm is the latest addition to the MATS, the MultiAgent Tactical Sentry project Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Suffield has been developing for the better part of a decade to help the Canadians Forces, especially the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit (JCIRU) of the Special Operations Forces Command, detect, evaluate and investigate possible chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events.

MATS is not much to look at, initially. The vehicle is a modified Kawasaki 4×4 3010 with a diesel engine that might seem more at home on a golf course. But since the project first began in 2003, the bland-looking vehicle has evolved to incorporate the latest in air sampling point sensors and state-of-the-art teleoperated robotics to deliver CBRN capability down range.

The vehicle relies on an integrated CBRN sensor suite. A radiological and chemical detector, video and thermal imaging cameras, and an antenna are mounted to the roll bar of the vehicle while in the bed behind sits a high-end processing unit that includes a milspec weather station. The vehicle itself can be manually operated, but once a driver has gotten as close to a incident as he dares, control is handed over to a ground station in a remote mobile command post, which is able to capture video, audio and the CBRN sensor data. The station also features rolling map displays, forensic video recording, and integration of meteorological data into a threat dispersion display.

This is not new ground for DRDC. The Autonomous Intelligent Systems Section (AISS) in Suffield has been developing, testing and fielding unmanned ground systems since the late 1970s. Their first serious demonstrations took place in 2000 but interest in the potential of their research really picked up after 9/11 as greater recognition set in about the asymmetry of modern threats.

As with much of what DRDC develops, the program was part of a technology transfer with industry. In 2005, Meggitt Defence Systems was contracted to support the manufacture, systems integration and testing of the latest version of MATS, providing engineering support for the construction of subsequent MATS UGVs, their payload integration and the fabrication of ground stations.

According to a 2008 paper authored by Jared Giesbrecht and colleagues with the AISS, “MATS has been a landmark project within DRDC, delivering one of a kind capabilities directly into the hands of the CF. It has become the eyes and ears of the CJIRU, and continues to be used on a day-to-day basis. The system is not only technically advanced and well-suited to the job, but has also been a shining example that robotic assets can be reliable and easy to use.”

The authors noted that key lessons have been learned about introducing “robotics to a military client,” especially the importance of “human factors and training issues … when developing a new piece of technology. Having direct interaction and feedback from the end users throughout the process was paramount to success.”

Though the MATS system has been in service with the CF since late 2004 – as of 2008, DRDC had designed and delivered four vehicles and control stations to the CJIRU – it is a constant work in progress. The arm is just the most recent addition. Scientists at the Alberta facility say the next evolution in MATS is a small robotic vehicle that can be transported inside or on the back of MATS, marsupial-like, to then investigate inside buildings. MATS would provide its power, communications and processing capabilities.

In 2008, defence scientists predicted a future in which robotic vehicles such as MATS would move beyond niche roles within the Canadian army to become part of standard equipment. That future is still a ways off, but in a nearby building to MATS it is already taking shape. The Mico Hydraulic Tool Kit, a four-legged conceptual program to overcome the challenges of stairs and other obstacles in small spaces, is already taking its first tentative steps.

For a video of MATS, see our homepage.