Distance digging

Qinetiq has developed technology to transform a standard military JCB into a remote control unit for use in hazardous environments.

The Applique Robotic Kit (Ark) can be fitted to any in-service JCB 4CXM or CAT320B heavy digger within 12 hours, converting the vehicle into a fully-integrated remote-controlled machine that can be operated from up to 1km away.

The system was designed for the MoD to be used when it is too dangerous for troops to remain inside the vehicle — whether it is due to the threat of sniper fire, chemical hazards or booby-trapped buildings. The vehicle can be switched between manual or full robotic control by inserting a 128-bit encryption key that ensures a secure radio signal between the earthmover and the control unit.

The device comprises a robust command console, the control modules for the vehicle as well as an electro-hydraulic system specific to the individual vehicle, allowing the operator control over the full range of movement of the JCB. The command console uses a 30cm LCD which gives real-time information provided by the various sensors attached to the vehicle. According to Qinetiq’s Robotic Systems manager Simon Christoforato, these could include radiation or chemical sensors as well as a variety of different cameras, including infrared.

The graphic display on the command console also provides information on the vehicle’s pitch and roll, engine speed, and the position of the bucket. Twenty buttons surround the screen to operate different cameras and functions, while the movement of the vehicle itself and the digging mechanism is controlled using three joysticks.

Not only can the vehicle be operated from a distance, but because of the high-quality data and video link to the control unit operators do not need to be able to see the vehicle at all — an important feature of the system according to Christoforato.

‘The key to the system is that it is completely flexible and can be operated without line of sight,’ he said. ‘This means that hazardous land clearance in military operations, including chemical situations, can be undertaken without putting troops at risk.’

Christoforato said that the technology could also prove useful in the civilian market, with possible future applications including nuclear decommissioning and clearing up after the effects of chemical leaks or fires.

‘It could be very useful in any situation where it is unwise for people to be, such as in the aftermath of the Buncefield explosion,’ he said.

It is expected that the MoD will put ARK into service overseas within the next few months.