ORLANDO, Fla. — As militaries look to inject greater realism into their shooting ranges, more companies are developing robotic moving targets to replace the paper pop-up targets that are currently the norm.
"Many of our trainees in the armed services, they never get to fire at a target that is moving unpredictably, or something that reacts when you fire upon it," said Jim Fontaine of Pratt & Miller, which is working with the Army's Program Executive Office Simulation, Training and Instrumentation on several robotic targets that would allow for more complex marksmanship training.
During the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), the company showed off its Trackless Moving Target (TMT-V), a moving vehicle platform that uses GPS waypoints to move through a range. The TMT-V looks like a platform on wheels that can host the Army's existing 2D and 3D targets, and it can carry up to 4,000 pounds and move up to 35 miles per hour.
Unlike pop-up targets that move back and forth on a rail in a linear pattern, the TMT-V can be programmed via GPS-waypoints to follow a specific route that turns and twists in a more unpredictable fashion, he said. Its course can be further randomized by the instructor, who can set the system to choose how it will move among several potential routes, or program it to conduct evasive maneuvers like following a zig-zag path.
Pratt & Miller has already tested the TMT-V during a 2014 demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia. It now is working on extending the range of the system — which could entail integrating more advanced batteries or generators — as well as incorporating an obstacle detection and avoid system, Fontaine said.
"We want something that will extend the range without being too exotic and still utilizing very much a commercial-off-the-shelf offering of the technologies. One of our goals is absolutely to keep the price down on this," he said. "Without having a real price point, yet, we're very cognizant that it needs to be in a competitive price range with other technologies."
The company is also working on making a robotic target that will replicate a moving soldier. This summer, PEO STRI awarded a $2.9 million contract for the company to develop that system, which will be based on the TMT-V. Pratt & Miller hope to move to production of both platforms in late 2018.
Australian manufacturer Marathon Targets highlighted its own autonomous infantry trainers at I/ITSEC: the T40 robots already in use by Australia, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and other countries as well as the recently launched T30, a less costly version of its more advanced big brother. Both systems look roughly the same, as if a mannequin was perched on a Segway that can roll at speeds of about 10 miles per hour.
Unlike the Pratt and Miller models, the Marathon Targets robots can operate without having a preprogrammed path locked in. The T30 and T40 are capable of moving around targets autonomously using a laser designator that detects obstacles and moves around them, said Ralph Petroff, president of the company's North American business. The targets can also sense when it has been hit and will slow down if injured, moving to a horizontal position when a lethal shot has been fired.
"We hear again and again from the customers that every range in the US will have autonomous robots, because they need better ranges [and] faster ranges," he said. They also need to increase throughput, which is difficult when moving troops in and out of practice is dependent on swapping out paper targets.
The company has sold some T40 units to the Marine Corps through a $50 million contract announced in 2010, but in the last four years, all of its US business has come from selling training as a service, Petroff said. A customer for a yearlong contract can expect to pay about $39 an hour per robot.
"Training as a service is more user friendly because the procurement budgets to buy things are tight, whereas everyone has a live fire budget, a role player budget and an opposing force budget," which are more flexible, he said.
Pratt & Miller is also considering leasing the TMT-V and future infantry robots on a short-term basis to customers who are among the first to adopt the technology and could provide feedback, Fontaine said. The goal would be to obtain feedback on the system and incorporate improvements that could be rolled into production.
"I think it will also help our customers to see what the potential of the system is, so it's kind of a win-win for both of us," he said. "That's one of the things we've being talking to a lot of people at the show today about.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.