Challenges still remain for unmanned ground systems. Experts and government scientists continue to discuss the challenges, whether they're technical — difficulty with a system's predictability on different terrains — or cultural — general human trust of systems one might not understand.
These were just some of the issues expressed by a panel of government technologists and roboticists Thursday at the Unmanned Systems Defense conference in Arlington, Virginia. Unmanned systems have been used in combat and the military will continue to mature these technologies despite challenges.
One of the more critical uses in future conflicts will be taking the point to prevent soldiers from becoming cannon fodder. Bob Sadowski, the Army's chief roboticist, explained that future operational environments will be highly lethal, much more so than anything seen in the recent past or current operations. He drew the audience's attention to near-peer threats such as anti-access/area denial.
Noting that the Army is moving more toward an expeditionary force and capability, Sadowski said future lethal battlefields will force the Army to have a more dispersed force structure — in this scenario, a company might have to act more like a battalion. The only way to succeed in such an environment is through a mix of air and ground assets. Without growing more soldiers, he said, this drives toward a more robotic and autonomous solution. And this does not have to be sophisticated autonomy, but something just to augment the soldier as he or she performs a mission, he said.
What the force ends up with is what Sadowski called a shield and spear as robots take the point, meaning the robot becomes the potential casualty over the soldier. This allows for freedom of maneuver, he said.
There’s no "Black Hawk Down" with these systems that involve a medevac, he added, referencing the failed special forces operation in Somalia in the 1990s in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down into hostile territory.
Similarly, Michael Brunch, from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), explained that the Marine Corps, which is an amphibious and expeditionary force, is looking to amplify its mission through unmanned systems.
"How do we have an autonomous first wave?" he said, noting this will likely be ONR's focus in the near future.
One of the things the service has been looking at is how to get Marines on the shore faster. This could be done by leveraging small, expendable systems in larger numbers to be the first wave instead of Marines, he said, noting the scene on the beach of Normandy, France, in 1944 where U.S. forces assaulted German positions in the D-Day operation of World War II.
In terms of near-term effects on the battlefield, Sadowski said unmanned ground systems could contribute greater situational awareness in the way small, ground-based robots or handhelds give soldiers the ability to look around a corner of a house, across an alley or over a hill. These systems are at a high-technology readiness level, he said.
One thing that is leading the edge in the short term, he added, is the squad multipurpose equipment transport, which is supposed to be a jack of all trades. This will be aimed at getting to the dismounted force to haul certain loads. This is something the force might look to accelerate from an acquisition perspective, he said.
This system or similar systems — ones that can carry more than a typical soldier’s load — will help achieve overmatch on the battlefield. Think of a light, infantry squad that can bring a .50-caliber weapon to battle, Sadowski said.