By Peter Haapaniemi
Stepping into Pratt & Miller Engineering headquarters in New Hudson, MI, one thing becomes clear: This is an operation with a passion for embracing the very latest in advanced engineering and manufacturing techniques.
Pratt & Miller Engineering does a fair amount of sophisticated but low-volume manufacturing for its automotive and military clients. The company develops electrical vehicles, manufactures prototypes and builds racecar chassis, body panels, cargo beds, hoods and fenders for military vehicles and automotive market clients.
The company, which embraces the latest ideas in manufacturing, is now exploring the use of robots in its processes — not to increase volume, but because of the efficiency and repeatability they bring.
“We are working with industrial robotics companies to build an automation capability into our manufacturing stream,” says Lynn Bishop, vice president of engineering services.
The products these robots will be working on? Robots — or more precisely, robotic vehicles.
Pratt & Miller has had a great deal of success with its robotic vehicles, but that work is a relatively new line at the company. The firm got its start in a much different field — designing and building racecars. In 1989, Jim Miller, a successful entrepreneur who enjoyed driving in races, teamed up with Gary Pratt, a long-time designer and builder of competition vehicles, to form the company.
Pratt & Miller quickly made its mark in the racing world. By the late 1990s, this led to the company becoming one of a handful of firms designing and building vehicles for General Motors’ racing program. That partnership has proved to be a resounding success over the years. Working with GM, Pratt & Miller has won numerous prominent racing events, with Corvettes winning their class at the prestigious “24 Hours of Le Mans” event eight times, and taking the American Le Mans Series championship 10 times.
Leveraging high performance in new fields
In 2005, the company reached a key turning point in its history when it entered into an exclusive racing agreement with GM. “That really gave us a solid foundation as a business,” says Bishop.
The company decided to build on that foundation by diversifying into businesses beyond motorsports. In time, events provided another motivation for that change, as the 2008 economic crisis hit the auto industry — and especially GM.
Faced with that uncertainty, Pratt & Miller asked, “what are some of the other services that we could offer, using the expertise that we’ve developed in motorsports?” says Bishop.
The diversification effort eventually took the company into businesses such as electric automobiles, the restoration of classic vehicles, product development services and, of course, robotics.
The robotics field may seem like something of a stretch for a racing firm. However, Pratt & Miller saw that it could bring some valuable assets to the table. “Racing is about high performance and being lightweight and very durable, which is a good fit with robotic vehicles,” says Bishop.
At the same time, the company saw a growing market. “The Department of Defense, the automotive companies and others were starting to show a lot of interest in autonomous and robotic vehicles,” says Bishop.
The company quickly found traction in the market, working with Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) on two projects. One was a large Army robotics research and development effort, the other was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge, with Pratt & Miller providing development and simulation support for the creation of a mobile robot designed to operate in dangerous environments.
Pratt & Miller also worked with GM to create a demonstration model of a “future mobility platform,” Bishop says. “This looked at how future transportation systems could transform, say, urban mobility by including autonomy, the electrification of the vehicle and different mobility controls on a single platform.”
Pratt & Miller built five of these prototype vehicles.
“GM has since continued to develop that platform, and they are continuing to use it for transportation research,” he says.
In 2012, Pratt & Miller partnered with GM and NASA on the space agency’s “robonaut,” a human-like robot designed to perform dangerous tasks on the International Space Station. Here, Pratt & Miller provided prototype ankle, foot and hip-joint parts — basically helping to give the robonaut legs to walk on.
“That was a pretty unique milestone for us,” says Bishop. “We’d gone from being a small racing company to building parts that are now on a robonaut on the space station.”
Formalizing the strategy
Pratt & Miller’s pursuit of these robotics projects was essentially opportunistic, with the company tackling each one as it came up. By 2012, however, this work added up to a lot of experience, and the company decided to take the next step.
“We recognized that we had some unique capabilities and technologies based on robotics, so we formally launched our robotics strategy, which focuses on high-performance ground mobility platforms,” says Bishop.
Under that strategy, Pratt & Miller received U.S. Army funding to develop and build an autonomous target system for the Army, to be used in infantry training. Known as AVeTar (Autonomous Electric Vehicle Target), this vehicle is designed to drive around a course while marksmen try to hit it.
Bishop and the company viewed this as an opportunity to take robotic vehicles to new levels. The automated target vehicles traditionally used by the Army are not especially sophisticated, and they run on tracks. As a result, their behavior is predictable, and riflemen quickly learn to anticipate where they will go — which limits the efficacy of training. The AVeTar, on the other hand, runs freely, without human intervention, sensing and responding to its environment as it moves. A full truck-size vehicle, it can be fitted with silhouettes to look like an insurgent’s pickup, a tank and so forth.
AVeTar also has a degree of built-in intelligence. “We’ve designed and built different path and training scenarios for the vehicle, so that the behavior can be completely random,” says Bishop.
The system also reacts to incoming fire. If it senses a hit by a sniper’s bullet, it behaves as if driven by a human, changing speed and zigzagging to avoid being hit again.
“Depending on where the target is hit, the system could take on an aggressive or defensive posture,” he says. “It can change behaviors, depending on the training scenario. This adds a lot more realism, which really enhances the efficacy of the training.”
A look toward the future
Looking ahead, Bishop says that there are opportunities to take the company’s expertise further into the commercial sector — exploring, for example, the use of heavy-duty autonomous vehicles in mining operations. In addition, two auto companies are now tapping into Pratt & Miller’s robotics expertise for their autonomous vehicle programs.
“We’re demonstrating that robotic platforms can be robust, have true autonomous behavior, operate at high speeds with off-road mobility and do it all safely,” says Bishop. With that, he adds, the Pratt & Miller robotics group is essentially drawing on the company’s roots in motorsports.
“We’re really just focused on continuing to stretch the performance envelope of these platforms.”