Marathon Targets' newest T-40 4-Wheel Drive smart target can accelerate and move faster than older versions and seems more human, thanks to changes in its design and external speakers that allow it to "talk" or emit simulated gunshots. (Marathon Targets)
Service members may soon find themselves battling smart robots, which will please training aficionados and science-fiction doomsday fans alike.
Over the next three months, Australian company Marathon Targets will deliver its newest generation of smart targets to several militaries, including the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, the Australian Army and another NATO nation’s army.
Equipped with humanoid heads and torsos, the robots roll around like a four-wheeled Segway. Laser rangefinders allow them to sense their surroundings and move easily and autonomously around a live-fire range. They can navigate in and out of buildings, react with “intelligent” behavior to scatter or hide when shooting starts, and are designed to provide a realistic moving target for marksmen to engage.
The newest version of Marathon Targets’ T-40 4-Wheel Drive smart target offers several improvements over its older kin. It can accelerate and move faster than before, and its lower portion has shrunk — meaning the emphasis will be on the humanoid target rather than the armored mechanism carrying it. The time needed to recharge the battery has been reduced from eight hours to 2.5 hours, and it can operate at higher temperature ranges. Finally, replaceable external speakers allow it to “talk” or emit simulated gunshots.
Perhaps most importantly, the T-40 can now handle “very steep grades,” said Ralph Petroff, Marathon Targets’ managing director for North America.
This was a skill that previously left Marine Corps testers unsatisfied.
“The Marathon targets used in the comparative test had two wheels and required a flat, level surface to operate,” said a subject matter expert from the Marine Corps. “This was not practical for use on Marine Corps ranges and a four-wheel Marathon target will be evaluated in the upcoming months. The capability to operate on existing Marine Corps ranges without modification to the infrastructure acknowledges the necessity for new capabilities to be affordable to field and sustain.”
The Marine Corps conducted a Foreign Comparative Test in July 2011 using funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense in an attempt to find a “better live-fire moving target,” the expert said.
While the Marathon robots are just one available option, they have certain benefits — such as free movement (not along a defined path), autonomous behavior in response to being fired upon, and applicability for different training scenarios.
An upcoming evaluation of the second generation of four-wheel drive robots will take place at the Army’s Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, according to Marine Corps spokesman Col. Sean Gibson. He noted that the Army has asked to evaluate the two-wheeled version now at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
Officials will consider how the targets perform and determine how much it will cost to purchase and operate the robots.
According to the subject matter expert, the four-wheel version will be tested to “refine the requirement and better understand the current capability available from industry.”
Petroff hopes that the targets will give service members access to realistic live-fire training with moving “humans” before they get into theater. The targets can also be used for practicing rules of engagement, escalation of force and shoot/no-shoot scenarios.
The targets are intended to help marksmen shift from stationary targets to those with more realistic human movement patterns.
“It’s similar to what happens to someone who has been hitting a T-ball and then [is] put in a batting cage facing a pitching machine,” Petroff said. “They’ll struggle for the first few dozen swings — but then they get their timing down. It’s a similar dynamic here.”
Of course, Marathon targets aren’t the only robotic targets driving around. For example, the MotoShot Total Control Robots also come in two- or four-wheel variants. One model, like the Marathon Targets, will cause the unit to stop and the human-shaped target to fall back, indicating clearly that it has been hit.
Some of the MotoShot targets are able to withstand several shots and drop once it is hit a certain number of times, allowing marksmen to practice follow-up shots on the same target.
Another major difference? MotoShot targets don’t operate on a Segway-type base, and the robot is controlled by an operator using a joystick.
Lauren Biron is the editor of Training and Simulation Journal.