The Army wants to gradually bring more autonomy, artificial intelligence and common control of unmanned systems into soldier formations over the course of 25 years, moving from having to keep constant vigilance over robotic systems to relationships where the unmanned move alongside a warfighter on a mission, much like a hunter and his bird dog.
The Army's Capability and Integration Center (ARCIC) has unveiled a draft -- circulating at the Association of the US Army's annual show -- of its robotics and autonomous systems strategy and is preparing to formalize the document imminently.
The strategy identifies five capability objectives that will guide science and technology research and development and how unmanned aircraft and unmanned ground systems are used.
The Army wants to use unmanned systems to increase situational awareness, lighten both the soldier's physical and cognitive loads, bolster force sustainment, and help units move and maneuver on the battlefield while protecting soldiers from threats.
And like Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told Defense News in March at the Association of the US Army's Global Force Symposium when he outlined the basic principles of the RAS strategy, the document addresses how the Army will approach reaching its capability objectives in the near-term (2016-2020), the mid-term (2021-2030) and the far-term (2030-2040).
In order to get to where the Army wants to go with robots, it must focus on advancing three specific technologies, the strategy states: autonomy, artificial intelligence and common control.
This means the robots employed by the force need to get better at functioning independently from the user and think for itself through the right sensor technology while working on the battlefield with a multitude of other systems.
The near-term roadmap for the Army would be to procure more man-portable robots and autonomous systems at lower echelons in order to increase situational awareness. This could mean investing in tethered or untethered systems providing navigational aid and streaming video.
The Army also wants to invest in autonomous platforms that can carry equipment and in exoskeleton technology. The service would also develop technology to ultimately build up automated ground resupply and self-guided resupply parachutes that would come online in the mid-term.
Additionally, these systems should become increasingly smart on their own, so the soldier does not have to concentrate as much on the robot.
The Army would also increase development of route clearance, breaching and counter-IED technology to include off-road ground vehicle autonomy, which the strategy acknowledges is the greatest technological challenge in bringing unmanned combat vehicles into formations.
And the service in the near-term will continue investment in cognitive aides to "optimally pilot" its Future Vertical Lift aircraft expected to come online in the early 2030s.
In the mid-term, the Army will improve the ability for humans and machines to collaborate and develop swarming capabilities through improvements in artificial intelligence. The service will also pursue new programs in exoskeleton capability as well as an unmanned combat vehicle for maneuver units that can move across rough and variable terrain.
The Army will also improve automated convoys to the point of full autonomy where soldiers would be removed from the lead vehicle, according to the strategy.
New programs will begin for medium and large cargo UAS to reduce the need for manned helicopter support, the strategy adds. This technology could also be applied to casualty evacuation.
Also on the UAS side, the fleet would be runway-independent and expeditionary with reduced signatures and equipped with small, guided munitions.
In the decade leading up to 2040, the Army will already be replacing its antiquated autonomous systems and fielding new ground and air unmanned systems, according to the strategy, as new organizational plans fully bring autonomous systems into the formation. Unmanned systems will be used from home station to initial entry all the way through the mission on the battlefield.
Warfighters won’t have to focus on the robots, performing tasks alongside them and providing commanders with multiple options.
Soldiers will also have a complete "warrior suit" with displays integrated providing a common operating picture, intelligence and will integrate indirect and direct fire weapons systems.
The Army will send in swarms of robots in advance of units going into close combat. The robots will be self-unpacking and ready to maneuver upon arrival.
Entire logistics trails will be automated in the air and on the ground, the strategy details.
And ground and aircraft robotic platforms will be armed and can work alone or in pairs to take out targets in enemy territory.
UAS will become increasingly expendable and will take the place of soldiers in the most dangerous areas of the battlefield.
Maj. Gen. William Hix, the Army’s G-3/5/7 director of strategy, plans and policy, painted a picture of the future of unmanned systems for Defense News in a Sept. 30 interview at the Pentagon.
"Think of a robotic wingman paired with an existing platform, a Bradley or Stryker or an M1 [tank], so to speak, to act as a reconnaissance platform or additional weapon system or fulfill some other function so that makes your formations more capable without having to have more of them," Hix said. "That will extend the utility of the Army we have well into the 20s and probably early 30s."
The Army must move from using narrow artificial intelligence – like Apple’s Siri for example – into more advanced AI in order to accomplish this, Hix said. While robots like Boston Dynamics’ mule or cheetah, for instance, are increasingly sophisticated physical robots, they don’t interact. The Army wants systems that can relate back and forth through the employment of a combination of sensors.
Right now, soldiers have to pay attention to the robot almost continuously to make sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to. Sensors now are not mature enough to the point where they won’t accidently drive off into a river thinking it’s a road, Hix said.
The objective would be to tell a robot to do something, maybe even through verbal or hand and arm signals and to have systems that essentially "get your six" watching out for threats and responding to them automatically.
Hix said the Army has recently conducted a long-range research and development planning survey in connection with ground combat with a heavy robotics piece.
Some concepts for science and technology development could include robots that emulate a formation for deception, "so they are a target, if you lose one, it’s okay, better than being hit yourself," Hix said.
Another development area is how unmanned systems can contribute to non-line-of-sight fires capability. "So linking unmanned aerial vehicles and the sensors they carry to either the fire control system on an existing platform like the M1 or adding to them munitions that can take the targeting data from the UAV, so even if you can’t see the target, the UAV sees it, therefore you can hit it, so you can shoot it even though you can’t physically ‘line-of-sight’ see it," Hix said.
"Those are the kinds of capabilities that we found to be very promising in that survey," he said. "We are going through the process of necking that down so we can really get to the point of let’s invest in this and move out."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.