The war in Iraq has fueled the technological development and necessity of unmanned systems in today’s military forces. As Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution noted, “when the U.S. military went into Iraq in 2003, it only had a handful of unmanned systems in the air. The invasion force used zero unmanned ground vehicles.” In 2010, the U.S. utilized more than 12,000 unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and over 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Canada’s use of unmanned systems has also greatly increased since then, advancing the role and technology of UGVs and UAVs at home and abroad. Keeping Canadian officers and soldiers safe, UGVs have rapidly increased in capability and purpose, from being thrown through windows for reconnaissance to a robotized Bobcat Loader for mine rolling. QinetiQ North America’s (QinetiQ) TALON robot alone has served over 200,000 hours on operations.

But inefficiencies are arising in the number of controllers that are supplied with each unmanned vehicle.

These inefficiencies create growing issues for all users as the lack of standardized controllers make for increased training costs, bulkier transportation, and larger risks of error by the operator due to differences in each controller’s functionalities.

The solution for law enforcement and military units is a lightweight common universal ground control station (UGCS) that is rugged and rapidly deployable. Using one controller for all of a team’s UGVs and UAVs greatly decreases time and costs for training operators, and also increases the safety of both the operator and people within a potential impact zone.

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory has been working to reduce the sensor-to-shooter timeline by creating a Tactical Networked Sensor System (TNS2) that will provide the control and monitoring of UGVs, UAVs, unmanned surface vehicles and future unmanned sensor systems. At the core of the TNS2 is QinetiQ’s Tactical Robotic Controller (TRC), a lightweight, body-worn collective control/monitoring point for all unmanned assets within the TNS2.

QinetiQ, in cooperation with the Naval Surface Warfare Center for the US Marine Corps, has developed TRC to control UGVs, UAVs and a variety of unmanned sensors. Worn by the war fighter, the eight-pound controller works with more than a dozen unmanned systems made by different companies. Adding the ability to control a new vehicle type can be done in as little as thirty minutes, says Ed Godere, QinetiQ’s senior vice president of Unmanned Systems. Once programmed, the operator can control a range of unmanned systems.

Collaborative use of UAVs and UGVs can more efficiently detect and track the location of a person, vehicle or object on the ground. Instead of a large scale, multi-person operation, certain first responder missions such as IED disposal can now be executed by just one or two people. With one TRC, an operator can effectively perform an IED disposal mission using a micro-UAV and a bomb-disposal UGV.

With the TRC in one hand and a micro-UAV in the other, the operator can easily launch the UAV into the sky and then immediately begin surveying an area to identify ground disturbances such as buried IEDs with a downward facing camera or a small multi-spectral imager. QinetiQ’s Multi-Spectral Imager, for example, has proven highly successful in identifying IEDs and disturbed ground from air and ground vehicles.

Once an IED has been identified and depending on its size, the same operator can send either a large or small UGV to deactivate it with a simple switch of the TRC screen. By having both an aerial perspective and ground bomb-disposal capability, one operator can safely and quickly secure an area up to one square kilometer.

The significance of unmanned systems technology has rapidly increased within the last ten years. With increased threats and highly sophisticated weaponry, the use of universal operating controllers will better equip first responders to complete unmanned system missions more effectively and accurately.

Jordan Thompson is the marketing relations manager for Gryphon Engineering Services in Ottawa, the Canadian representative for QinetiQ North America’s TALON family of robots (