WASHINGTON — After years of struggling to come up with a solid strategy for bringing robotics and autonomous systems into the fold, the U.S. Army finally appears on the verge of bringing them into combat formation in a way that makes operational sense, especially within the ground force.
But that still means starting off small.
“Smaller unit capabilities will be the first to be fielded with robotics,” Maj. Gen. Bo Dyess, the acting director of the Army Capabilities and Integration Center, told Defense News in a recent interview.
In executing the Army’s robotics and autonomous systems strategy born out of ARCIC and Training and Doctrine Command a year ago, the service will likely have a good idea in just a few years on how it will use robotics to decrease the soldier load and prevent battlefield surprise by being able to see over the next hilltop, Dyess explained. He noted that robots will continue to provide capabilities that are widely prevalent in operations such as bomb disposal.
While using robots in the field is nothing new, fully integrating the capability with units on the ground hasn’t been easy to conceptualize and execute.
Dyess sees “beyond 2020” as the time when the Army will likely look at how to bring robotics and autonomous capabilities to higher echelons and in more complex ways. “That’s like just over the rainbow,” he said.
The ability for robots to lead and follow, serve as wingmen or bird dogs to the soldiers, and possibly even shoot at the enemy are farther afield.
While manned-unmanned teaming is often used downrange in Army aviation, it’s much harder to get vehicles to work autonomously and safely over unpredictable terrain.
While armed ground vehicles are prevalent at defense trade shows worldwide, Dyess said he doesn’t foresee armed ground robots before 2020, and even then “they’re going to have some type of human in the loop in order to pull the trigger or make lethal decisions.”
But he added he feels “pretty strongly” that arming ground robots will be a requirement for the Army in the future.
The service has taken major steps to figure out how to integrate robots into the maneuver force over the last several years.
In the summer, the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence held a demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia, that showcased its efforts to develop a robotic wingman within the maneuver force and how to incorporate robotic capability within a tank formation.
Much of the technology is there to drive robotics and autonomy into maneuver formations, but when it comes to developing tactics, techniques and procedures, the Army is figuring out “how we want to massage this,” said Robert Sadowski, robotics chief with the Army‘s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, said at the demonstration. “The next 10 to 15 years will help us figure out how we want to embed robotics and autonomous systems into the formation.”
The service is investing in some new platforms across the next five years, but those are mostly tactical systems focused on explosive ordnance disposal, logistics, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The Army awarded in September an engineering development and production contract to Endeavor Robotics to build its Man Transportable Robotic System Increment 2 for $158.5 million. MTRS will be a remotely operated, medium-sized common robotic platform to replace thousands of unique robotic systems rapidly fielded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The service does not want to repeat the rapid procurement of a hodgepodge of one-off systems when providing its next round of robotic capability to the war fighter, and MTRS helps to get after that goal.
MTRS is the first of three programs to replace the countless robotic systems procured over the last 15 years.
Production of MTRS is expected to begin in fiscal 2019. The company will field roughly 1,210 systems to units related to engineering; explosive ordnance disposal; and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear measures, according to the Army.
The service is also holding a competition for a new small unmanned ground vehicle — the Common Robotic System — Individual — that weighs less than 25 pounds, is highly mobile, and is equipped with advanced sensors and mission modules for dismounted forces. A contract award is expected in the first quarter of fiscal 2018.
The service is pursuing an “innovative” approach to meet its Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport requirement, according to Bryan McVeigh, project manager of force projection within the Army’s Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support.
The Army awarded contracts to nine companies for a total of 10 platforms, McVeigh said, which participated in a live demonstration event from Sept. 11 through Oct. 14 at Fort Benning. The demonstration was meant to educate the Army on robotic logistics capabilities and for soldiers to provide operational feedback.
The participating companies were General Dynamics Land Systems, American Robot Company, Lockheed Martin, HDT Expeditionary Systems, AM General, Howe and Howe Technologies, Roboteam NA, Inc., QinetiQ North American, and Applied Research Associates.
Also based on the demonstration, the Army will select up to four platforms and award production contracts for 20 of each, and will then issue the systems to two infantry brigade combat team locations to inform future program decisions, McVeigh said.
Just over the rainbow
Even as the Army works to streamline the robotic systems within very specific units, it’s still unclear how unmanned systems will be integrated with combat formations in the near term.
According to James Tinsley, a defense analyst at Avascent, the lack of integration of unmanned aircraft systems into vehicle concepts was particularly striking at DSEI, a recent defense conference in the United Kingdom.
Finnish defense company Patria was the only one to display a concept integrating a drone with a vehicle ― mounting a hand-launched micro-UAV from FLIR/Prox Dynamics atop a little stick on the roof of the back-end of its armored modular vehicle.
“This may reflect the lack of consensus around which crew member will operate the platform and sensor, who will buy and maintain the system, how launch/recovery/reuse can be integrated into the vehicle architectures, and other things to be worked out,” Tinsley said. “But it seems like there could be some additional low-cost, [commercial/modifiable off-the-shelf] solutions and integration opportunities to shape market demand, which vehicle and system contractors are not pursuing.”
The budget for Army ground robotics is ramping up from small unmanned ground vehicles to systems that can be retrofitted onto larger vehicles for explosive ordnance disposal or for leader-follow applications, according to Kelleigh Bilms, also an analyst at Avascent.
And since the Army is looking for capabilities that span a broad set of missions, the showroom floor at the recent Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in Washington had an abundance of offerings from industry, particularly claiming flexibility to meet multiple missions.
Industry is starting to bring forward ideas for fully autonomous, large vehicles, particularly as the rest of the automotive industry grows increasingly comfortable incorporating autonomy into full-sized commercial vehicles.
The Army tried a few medium-sized autonomous systems for cargo resupply in recent years during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; but even after feedback from the field expressed utility in the systems, the service essentially shelved the capabilities due to competing priorities in a tight fiscal climate.
Part of the resurgence could be that the Army is starting to look at a next-generation combat vehicle that will likely have a great deal of autonomous capability integrated into the platform.
BAE Systems earlier this year repurposed its future combat system Armed Robotic Combat Vehicle to reimagine what a larger unmanned ground vehicle could look like.
At AUSA, General Motors unveiled SURUS ― the Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure ― a flexible and highly mobile, stealthy, electric, autonomous platform that can be converted to meet a wide variety of operational needs within the Army, which builds off its extensive work on fuel-cell technology.
Many of the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport offerings were also on display at AUSA, including QinetiQ’s Titan and HDT Global’s Hunter WOLF.
Polaris Industries also touted its Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport offering in partnership with Applied Research Associates and Neya Systems LLC that evolves squad mobility using the MRZR X vehicle in combination with ARA’s advanced unmanned systems and autonomous systems behavior technology from Neya.
The Army is shifting its focus toward building a capability to fit into its new Multi-Domain Battle concept, and that has “helped explain more clearly the value of unmanned ground systems in future [concepts of operation],” Bilms said. Yet, “there are still cultural and organizational barriers to the [manned-unmanned teaming] vision outlined in Army strategy documents.”
To successfully move forward, Bilms said, trust in fully autonomous capabilities needs to increase, and that will require assurance the technology is reliable.
“These are no small hurdles overcome before we’ll see [unmanned ground vehicles] realize their full potential,” Bilms said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.