Over the past decade-plus of action in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost 800 robots have been blown up or otherwise destroyed in combat.
This means that an equal number of “soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have had their lives or limbs saved,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Benjamin Stinson, project manager with the Pentagon’s Robotic Systems Joint Project Office.
One of the major robotics efforts taking place is the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization’s (JIEDDO) evaluation of four ground robotic systems, wrapping up operational assessments in Afghanistan. Kicked off in June 2011, the $22 million program is designed to meet commanders’ urgent battlefield requests for smaller, lighter robots to help sniff out IEDs and give dismounted troops better situational awareness.
JIEDDO originally identified six robots as potential solutions, but whittled that to four to send to Afghanistan last summer.
The Ultra-Light Reconnaissance Robots program sent 400 robots, 100 from each competitor, to be tested. These were the Armadillo, a 5.5-pound system made by MacroUSA; QinetiQ’s Dragon Runner 10, which weighs about 10 pounds; iRobot’s FirstLook, a 5-pound throwable robot; and Recon Robotics’ 1.2-pound Throwbot.
JIEDDO officials have said they expect results to be available in the October time frame, and given the multiple capability gaps identified by troops in Afghanistan, it’s likely that more than one system will win a contract.
According to the Robotic Systems JPO Roadmap for 2012-2025, both JIEDDO and the Marine Corps are moving a bit faster than the U.S. Army in fielding some of these systems, with the Corps acquiring 222 Dragon Runner robots, along with 92 Recon Scout XTs.
But with 8,000 robots purchased by the Pentagon since 2001, and 3,500 operating in Afghanistan, what happens when the coalition’s withdrawal is complete?
Stinson said that as with many other programs, “there will be a divestiture, and there will be some robots that we get rid of.”
But the Pentagon doesn’t plan to just throw them out. The plan is to repair as many as possible and give them to other government agencies, colleges and laboratories.
“We don’t anticipate many robots being thrown on the scrapheap,” he said.
Some of the biggest capability gaps in the current robotics fleet are the lack of manned/unmanned teaming, Stinson said, along with the lack of autonomy. Right now, one operator controls one robot, making ground robotics a manpower-intensive endeavor.