The Legged Squad Support System developed by Boston Dynamics and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. / Boston Dynamics via DARPA
Welcome to the machines.
The Army is testing a variety of unmanned ground vehicles to see how well they can fire weapons and carry the load for a nine-man squad.
Ten unmanned ground vehicles were assessed during the Oct. 7-10 tests at Fort Benning, Ga., led by the Maneuver Center of Excellence’s battle lab. Three of the vehicles are designed solely to carry equipment and supplies, and the remaining seven are also capable of being fired remotely.
The MCoE demonstrated, fired and displayed the armed unmanned ground vehicles for the press. The AUGV portion of the demonstration was for one day, while the load-bearing vehicles were tested over several days.
The AUGVs are designed to serve two purposes on the battlefield: Maneuver with small units to close with and destroy the enemy, and to conduct reconnaissance missions.
Lt. Col. Willie Smith, the battle lab’s chief of unmanned ground systems, was careful to say that the armed robots would not be “autonomous.” Autonomy is not the objective, he said, adding “there’s always a man in the loop.”
“I know a lot of people have concerns about the ethical issues, the rules of engagement, because robots don’t have the capacity to determine ethically what should or should not be done,” Smith said.
“We want to know what’s technologically available, and then, as a force, can we employ that technology? And once we get to that issue, we’ll work on the other rules-of-engagement issues,” he said.
In the tests, the AUGV was called upon to engage targets from 800 meters away. They had to move to a firing point, fire and then leave the firing point, according to Tollie Strode, unmanned systems lead at the battle lab.
“This is a first look for a lot of people who will be there at what an armed robot looks like and what happens when this thing starts popping rounds downrange,” Strode said.
Safety was a key part of the test, which looked at how reliably the systems can be controlled at various distances, Strode said.
The tests also look at the effect on the platforms when they fire an M240, a belt-fed, gas-operated medium machine gun; and the degree that the size, weight and stability of the platform affects accuracy and distance.
In the rest of the event, the Army’s Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport program, was set to look at unmanned robotic platforms that can transport equipment and significantly lighten the soldier’s mission equipment load. It would also have to charge soldiers’ batteries.
The S-MET would be required to carry 1,000 pounds, the equivalent of the weight carried by a nine-man squad on a 72-hour mission.
It must also maintain a 4 kilometer-per-hour march speed for eight hours with zero to 38 kph bursts of speed for 200 meters on a hard, dry and level surface.
“We don’t think it’s going to be the weight, but the cubic volume that will be the issue because when you start stacking stuff, it changes the center of gravity,” Strode said. “And they’re going to have to travel over some pretty rough terrain — the places where soldiers go.”
The S-MET will also have to traverse in forward and reverse on slopes of up to 30 percent and descending on slopes of 60 percent.
Rough terrain was a challenge for Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System when the company sent four test vehicles to Afghanistan last year. The systems had trouble discerning between soldiers and trees and could not be used on complex terrain as intended, said Harry Lubin, chief of the lab’s live experimentation branch. Instead, they were used on roads and improved areas.
“The challenge has been the mobility of the vehicle where they follow the dismounts where they need to go,” Lubin said.
The vehicles on display employ various means to ensure they follow soldiers traveling on foot. They could use a leader-follower device a soldier would carry or another form of remote sensing technology.
“There are a lot of ways to skin the cat, and this will inform us which capability will best meet the needs of the soldier,” Strode said. “And this informs what we tell the technology leaders as far as how to proceed.”
The Maneuver Battle Lab’s briefing materials on the event said the S-MET test would include:
■ Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System.
■ DARPA/Boston Dynamics’ Legged Squad Support System.
■ DRS/Synbotics’ Mission Unmanned Ground Vehicle-Squad Support.
■ Mesa Technologies’ Acer.
■ QinetiQ North America’s Raider II.
■ Segway RMP440.
The AUGV demonstration would include:
■ iRobot’s 710 Warrior.
■ QinetiQ North America’s Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System.
■ The Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Remote Armed Maneuver Platform.
■ Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station mounted on a Humvee.
Both the S-MET and AUGV events were set to include:
■ HDT Robotics’ Protector.
■ Northrop Grumman’s Mobile Armed Dismount Support System.
■ TORC Robotics’ Atlas.