WASHINGTON — The US Army is drafting doctrine for the first time that would govern its robotic and unmanned systems, with the service's sights set on robots for supply convoys, tactical reconnaissance and as robotic wingmen for soldiers on foot.
Driving the push for a unified strategy is concern an enemy would use robots on the battlefield first, said Lt. Col. Matt Dooley, lethality branch chief at the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). Although the Army is now moving toward an open systems architecture for its ground robots, it had fielded a variety of them on an ad hoc basis in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely for stand-off missions, such as bomb disposal.
"In the end, we want to prevent our enemies from leaping ahead of us," Dooley said, speaking at a ground robotics conference on Wednesday. "There is a risk associated with investing a lot of money and a risk to not doing anything. You have allies and potential threats that are moving forward with robotics. We have to acknowledge conditions on the battlefield in 2025 will include robotics whether we invest in it or not."
Over the next decade, the Army will prioritize its ongoing autonomous convoy and counter-IED efforts, as well as efforts to provide platoons and squads with reconnaissance capability at the company and battalion level, Dooley said.
"We have a sky full of UAVs and industrial sized full-motion video, but the person at the point of contact has access to none of it," Dooley said. "If we can enable soldiers at that level, we think that's in the realm of the feasible."
In March, ARCIC's chief, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, directed creation of the "Army Concept and Strategy for Robotic and Autonomous Systems," due in 2016. The result will include a range of near, mid- and long-term capabilities, and an acquisitions strategy for prioritizing and integrating robots with various levels of human control across the force.
"We needed a single document we could point to and say this is the Army's overall mission," Dooley said. "There are a lot of [concepts of operations] and concepts for deployment out there, slides and white papers that point to a particular capability and gap, but there's not been one overarching vision."
Dooley was firm that there was no effort to create a lethal autonomous function, in keeping with the Pentagon's 2012 directive on the topic. "We're not going to leave those types of decisions to a robot," he said.
The Army is assuming industry investment in the technology will drive down cost, and it assumes a moral imperative to pursue unmanned platforms for "getting soldiers out of the way of the greatest hazards." However, Dooley said the guidance is not to use robots as an offset strategy to take soldiers out of formations.
The Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center is already pursuing tactical vehicles that drive themselves through an Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), developed by Lockheed Martin. AMAS uses radar and lidar to read the road surface, lanes and curves of the road, as well as fixed or moving obstacles like pedestrians and cars, and a "drive-by-wire" kit to control the steering, acceleration and brakes.
Dooley said he would like to see AMAS appear in one of the Army's semi-annual Network Evaluation Exercises to allay some of the safety concerns. He said he would also like to see reconnaissance drones used at the platoon level, but modified to create alerts so as not to suck up a soldier's attention.
"The soldier needs to have the asset and still perform the task in front of him," Dooley said.