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US Army Putting Finishing Touches on Autonomous Systems Strategy

March 17, 2016 (Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Ronald W. Stauffer/Marine Corps)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Army is putting the finishing touches on its robotics and autonomous systems strategy, according to the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.

The strategy, expected to come out this year, is in "the final stages of editing now,” Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told Defense News in an interview at the Association of the US Army’s Global Force Symposium. The ARCIC team is coordinating with the joint staff and other services to make sure its approach is compatible with joint forces’ autonomous development and that it also aligns with the deputy secretary of defense’s Third Offset Strategy to maintain overmatch, he said.

Robots and autonomous systems made their way onto the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s “Big 8” list of initiatives — unveiled at the AUSA conference this week — that it needs to develop to stay ahead of global threats and maintain overmatch against present and future adversaries.

The strategy, informed by some war-gaming and through an Army Warfighting Assessment at Fort Bliss, Texas, seeks to achieve “six main things” through the use of robots and autonomous systems, McMaster teased out.

The first is these systems should help protect the force at increased standoff distances, McMaster said: “They allow you to hopefully gain contact with the enemy under favorable conditions.”

Secondly, robots and autonomy-enabled systems can help improve situational awareness and provide persistent monitoring of the environment, he added. However, this doesn’t just mean to transmit visual observations, McMaster said, but will also have “other means of information collection so you can understand your environment better.”

The Army has looked very hard at systems that can lighten the soldier’s physical load, but it also is looking to lighten the cognitive load as well, McMaster explained.

Additionally, the service is looking to gain the ability to sustain the force with less risk to soldiers by using more autonomy-enabled systems for both air and ground delivery, McMaster said.

The Marine Corps and the Army dabbled with sling-load cargo resupply in Afghanistan for the course of a year using Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX unmanned helicopter. One of the aircraft crashed and the Marine Corps and Army completed its operational assessment using the remaining aircraft, but did not pursue the capability beyond that.

“We think future distributions or transportation units will be autonomy-enabled on the ground and in the air that will help us get what is needed across our area of operation and help sustain freedom of the unit and action for units in high-tempo operations as they conduct operations often times widely dispersed,” McMaster said.

The systems will also help units maneuver, he said. “If you employ, for example, unmanned ground or aerial systems along with a combat platform like a vehicle, if you are going around the corner, there is no need to drive around the corner yourself. You can use an autonomy-enabled or robotic vehicle that can assess danger areas for you.”

635938038347338059-kmax.jpg
A view of the K-max.
Photo Credit: Army

While the Army has never immediately armed an aircraft or an unmanned system in initial fielding, “we are thinking now how do we integrate weapon systems into these platforms and obviously keeping soldiers in the loop here, so the soldier can make the decision ultimately, but we might be firing a weapon off an autonomy-enabled platform,” McMaster said.

This strategy, like the combat vehicle modernization strategy unveiled last October, address near-, mid- and long-term solutions, which will depend on the maturity of the technology or the system, McMaster said.

When it comes to lightening the load for soldiers in the field, “we’ve done quite a bit of work” with the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET), according to McMaster, “and we think both our concept and that technology are at very high levels of maturity and is really a near-term solution to the problem so that we restore the appropriate combination of mobility, protection and lethality to our squad.”

The capability would suit the Army’s infantry and scout squads, as well as support teams like engineers, particularly well, McMaster added.

Leader-follower technology, where a manned vehicle would be autonomously followed by an unmanned vehicle, is another area that is coming along quickly and is considered “very mature,” McMaster said.

Unmanned aircraft systems are obviously broadly used and at a high level of maturity, but now the Army is more comfortable with the idea of bringing in “very small UAS,” McMaster said, “that can be carried on the soldier ... we are talking about the size of a phone.”

The Army integrated them during the AWA, he said, “so we’ve put them in a very challenging competitive environment against a very active opposing force and so we’ve learned these are extraordinarily valuable to the squad.”

In the midterm, around the years 2020 through 2030, the Army is looking very hard on improving vehicle autonomy and off-road mobility. “We see a lot of gains being made in the commercial sector, obviously, in vehicle autonomy,” McMaster said.  

But the Army still needs to ensure the vehicles have off-road autonomous capabilities in addition to on-road autonomy, he added.

The service also envisions increasing its payloads and what it can deliver with both air and ground unmanned systems.

The Army is assessing an autonomous pallet capability that can move supplies, a soldier, or even a soldier with his or her weapon, McMaster said.

“Sounds like a Star Wars kind of scenario, but I think that if they were to be able to move a soldier with a weapon and ammunition and equipment over significant distances on these sort of vehicles, it gives you this sort of tremendous reconnaissance capability and gives you the ability to move over restricted terrain quickly and gain observation,” McMaster said, adding the capability would be notably valuable in an urban area where you can “gain vertical dominance” and “get on the rooftops."

In the later years, 2030 and beyond, the Army will look to increase autonomy and increase machines’ ability to learn in complex environments.

“The next step is pursuing robots and robotics that provide information that will allow us to understand better our environment,” McMaster said. “There are ways we can use more automated-information processing and data analysis to help understand our environments better.”

From a program implementation perspective, Scott Davis, the director of the Army’s Combat Support and Combat Services Support office, told a group of reporters at AUSA on Tuesday that certain autonomous capabilities would be applied to vehicles in the fleet.

The service is looking to incorporate a “by-wire active safety kit” in vehicles in the near-term. “We are looking at this first,” he said, because “it really creates the underpinning architecture to accept autonomous capability in the future, but provides real benefit today.”

That benefit comes from capabilities already in cars such as adaptable cruise control and collision-avoidance technology as well as electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes.

The only Army vehicle today with electronic stability control is the Navistar MaxxPro Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle, Davis noted.

“There’s an opportunity for us to get that infrastructure and get some real safety improvements to the soldiers to help them from those rollovers and other things and as we continue to mature and develop doctrine and techniques for autonomous systems,” he said. “They will be more of plug-and-play because the vehicle will already be wired to accept it.”

The first vehicles to get the by-wire capability will be the Oshkosh-made Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) Palletized Load System (PLS). “That was simply chosen because that was also going to be the first one that we are going to target for leader-follower capability,” Davis said.

Going full-autonomous “is going to be a while,” Davis said. The Army is bringing on the capability in gradual steps, bringing on by-wire active safety capability first, then the service will bring on leader-follower capability. The Army will “eventually” move into an autonomous convoy set capability.

“I would say the full autonomous convoy is probably in the mid- to late-2020s, but I would expect [the Army] would have leader-follower yet in this decade,” Davis said.

The SMET — the squad-level robot that carries gear for soldiers — requirement still exists and has been tested at Fort Benning, Georgia, following assessments in Afghanistan under a different name.

The evaluation at Fort Benning is nearing completion, Davis said, and an analysis of alternatives will be conducted following that. Once the AOA is done, “the only thing holding it up is getting funding,” he said.

For full coverage of the AUSA Global Force Symposium and Exposition, visit www.defensenews.com/gfs.

Email: jjudson@defensenews.com

Twitter: @JenJudson

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