HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – As the US Army works to improve soldiers' marksmanship skills, the folks at Marathon Targets believe they have just the answer.

Marathon Smart Targets move, react and behave like humans. Outfitted with artificial intelligence, the robots move on their own, scatter and seek cover when one of them is shot, and sometimes even will regroup to launch an attack. They can be dressed as enemy fighters, hostages or innocent bystanders.

The company showed off its 5-foot-eight-inch, 500-pound robots at the Association of the United States Army Global Force Symposium and Exposition here.

A recent test of the Smart Targets at Fort Bliss, Texas, showed a marked improvement in soldiers' marksmanship, said Ralph Petroff, president of the North America subsidiary of the Australian company. On the soldiers' first run, they didn't hit a single Smart Target. But after a few hours of training, they were hitting their marks – which were set to move at running speed – out to 300 meters.

"Here you've got a situation where guys are improving their marksmanship skills by an order of magnitude in a day," Petroff said. "Increasing a squad's lethality changes the equation significantly."

The robot targets are made of a durable plastic that can withstand hundreds of shots.

Photo Credit: Marathon Targets

Marksmanship – one of the most fundamental skills of soldiering – is a problem all militaries have, Petroff said.

"The only time militaries are able to do realistic training on moving targets is in firefights," he said. "The battlefield is a horrible place for on-the-job training."

In training, soldiers mostly train with stationary targets; even the moving targets only move from left to right, he said.

The Smart Targets, made from self-healing plastic and have heavily armored bottoms, more closely simulate how enemy fighters might move or react during a real firefight; the robots even scream when they're shot and can move up to a mile in five minutes.

They're so smart that they can be programmed to be used as an opposing force during a field training exercise, Petroff said.

"This isn't laser tag. This is serious live-fire," he said.

Smart Targets move at human running speed, across a wide ranger of terrain.

Photo Credit: Marathon Targets

And when you're done training, the Smart Robots, which have run-flat, foam-filled all-terrain tires, drive themselves back into their trailer.

Smart Robots are the only autonomous ground robots in any kind of regular use in the Defense Department, Petroff said.

They cost $35 an hour per robot to rent under an extended lease, Petroff said. A typical training scenario will use about eight robots. Each robot can cover almost 13 miles on one battery charge, he said.

The Smart Robots can serve five functions for users, Petroff said.

They can act as standing targets, pop-up targets, moving targets, realistic moving targets and as a robotic opposing force, Petroff said.

"It's solving this fundamental problem," Petroff said.

Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.

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