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armasuisse hands over robotised construction machine Armeno to the Swiss Armed Forces

On 16 December 2021, armasuisse Science and Technology (S+T) handed over a robotised construction machine to the training unit Engineer/Rescue/ABC of the Swiss Armed Forces. The handover took place as part of an experiment between the SBB, ETH Zurich, armasuisse S+T and other partners. In the process, the remote-controlled and computer-aided deployment of this construction machine for excavating material from a debris basin was demonstrated.

24.01.2022 | Dr. Mark Höpflinger, Swiss Drone and Robotics Centre of the DDPS, armasuisse Science and Technology

Seven persons, both in civilian as well as orange protective clothing, stand in a debris basin of the SBB in front of the automated Armeno caterpillar excavator.
Official handover of the automated construction machine Armeno to the commander of the training unit engineer/rescue/ABC, together with representatives of ETH Zurich, the SBB and the SDRC DDPS.

From a standard construction machine to the Armeno robot

Armeno is a construction machine, but no ordinary one.  Unlike conventional machines, Armeno is robotised. However, this is what is known as a research demonstrator, not a market-ready product. A demonstrator is used to examine new technologies and concepts – in the case of Armeno, for example, for use in environments contaminated by ammunition or in areas with greater natural hazards.

The robotised construction machine is based on a standard caterpillar hydraulic excavator with a working weight of around 25 tons. However, the standard machine was slightly modified based on military specifications and expanded into a remote-controlled or automatable robot by the ETH Zurich and the Swiss Drone and Robotics Centre SDRC DDPS. This includes a modular roof box. The box contains various sensors, computer and communication equipment as well as interfaces to the basic machine. Using what are known as inertial measuring units, cameras and laser scanners, the environment can be mapped in detail, for example, for automatic and collision-free earthworks in regions without GPS. When the construction machine is deployed by remote control, the sensors are used, among other things, to improve the perception of depth of the machine operator. Augmented reality methods were used for this purpose.

Implementation in less than two months thanks to existing competences

The modification of the standard construction machine into a robot, the subsequent demonstration of the deployment in an area prone to rockfall as well as the handover to the Swiss Armed Forces on 16 December 2021 succeeded in less than two months. This was thanks to the preparatory work carried out over several years. The expertise and material components come from a project that began in 2013 at the ETH in Zurich. The goal back then was to transfer the knowledge from the area of walking robotics to established walking machines and to demonstrate the potential of such larger machines as robots. The project resulted in two research demonstrators [Baptism of Fire for the Research Demonstrator «ARMANO» (admin.ch)], from which the expertise on activation, remote control and automation of hydraulic construction machines and corresponding self-made components also come. Thanks to these existing components, it was possible to implement the Armeno project within a relatively short time.

Massive use of artificial intelligence

Remote-controllable or even semi-automated construction machines are in principle not new. New, however, is the close link with robotics research and the associated use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies. For example, neural networks are used to model the controller for the hydraulic cylinders of the excavator arm or reinforcement learning to calculate the optimum movement of the bucket for automatic earthwork. Methods for a selective AI-based image compression, for example, have been implemented for direct remote control of the machine. This means that the operator is only shown relevant image elements with a high degree of detail and the data bandwidth of radio communication is thus reduced.

Deployment in the Swiss Armed Forces

The remote-controlled machine Armeno was developed by ETH Zurich and the SDRC DDPS. The electrical cables and the roof box were produced by apprentices in RUAG vocational training. After the handover to the training unit Engineer/Rescue/ABC, Armeno is planned to make operations in dangerous environments safer. For example, the machine can be deployed as part of the clearance work at the former ammunition site Mitholz. 


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