HARRISON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The U.S. Army is poised to transform the ground robotics industry over the next year as it launches several competitions to define its future unmanned ground systems fleet.
By necessity, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army clamored to buy unmanned ground vehicles that could help provide a level of standoff between soldiers and the dangers faced on the battlefield, mostly improvised explosive devices.
Due to the rapid procurement of roughly 7,000 UGVs, the Army now has a petting zoo of various ground robots from Talons to PacBots to Dragon Runners.
A quick tour through the one-room museum at the Robot Logistics Support Center at Selfridge Air National Guard base in Harrison Township, Michigan, shows the invention and evolution of many of these robots. And a walk through the warehouse reveals only a glimpse of the extent of work the Army is still doing to keep the robots rotating in and out of use in the field.
There are 10 UGV repair facilities in the U.S. and two forward-deployed.
The various robots in the fleet perform functions from detecting explosives or other chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats to clearing mines and providing situational awareness.
There are roughly nine variants of robots used for the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) mission, two robots for engineering battalions to conduct route clearance, two for CBRNe tasks and three for contingency and global response forces, and that's just within the Army.
"One of the issues or challenges in some of the things that we’ve learned over time is these systems are, one, proprietary. So they don’t necessarily communicate with one another and, two, changes that we would need to make with them have to go back to the original contractors to make those changes," Lou Anulare, the product manager for unmanned ground vehicles in the Army’s Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat System Support, told Defense News in an interview at Selfridge.
The Army’s way forward streamlines UGVs so there are just a few common chassis in the small, medium and large ranges and a universal controller, making the systems interoperable and open to take on new sensors and capabilities more easily, Anulare said.
Man Transportable Robotic System
The Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II will be the Army’s next medium-sized robot to provide standoff capability to identify and neutralize explosive hazards. The MTRS Inc. II system will have a common chassis with the ability to plug in various payloads for current and future missions.
A capability production document was approved in May 2013, which led to a request for proposals from industry in November 2016. The source-selection team is in the process of choosing a winning company and will make an award in the last quarter of fiscal year 2017.
This means a common chassis for the medium variant unmanned ground vehicle will be determined this year. An initial operational capability for the vehicle is expected in 2021.
The Army plans to procure a total of 1,210 of these UGVs with the intention of fielding to engineering battalions and CBRN and EOD units.
While a common chassis for MTRS will be picked, the robot will continue to transform and change over the course of its life as the Army invests in payloads that can be swapped out on the platform with ease.
Gone are the days of "one-trick ponies" in the UGV fleet, Bryan McVeigh, project manager for force protection at the overseeing Army program executive office, said in the same interview.
The Army and industry developed a ground robotic interoperability profile in advance of procuring the next generation of UGVs. MTRS will be the first contract that requires various payloads like fiber optics, manipulator arms and radios to work within the profile.
The service will first field MTRS to the engineering battalions and CBRNe units, and the EOD units will get new UGVs in a second round because those units recently received upgraded Talon systems.
Common Robotic System (Individual)
For the Army’s future small UGV — the Common Robotic System (Individual) — the service wants a man-packable robot that is under 25 lbs and highly mobile, equipped with advanced sensors and mission modules for dismounted forces. The design will allow operators to reconfigure for various missions quickly in the field.
Again, the Army is looking at a common chassis and some payloads to address operational capability gaps including standoff, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; remote CBRN detection; explosive ordnance disposal operations and clearance of danger areas.
The service plans to release an RFP this month, but had yet to post it to the Federal Business Opportunities website by press time. A contract award is expected in the first quarter of fiscal 2018. An initial operational capability is expected in fiscal 2023.
The Army wants to procure a total of 3,258 CRS(I) robots for engineers, infantry, CBRN and EOD units.
Tying everything together is a common universal controller that will not only provide data from the system a soldier might be controlling, but also from other systems in the air or on the ground, whether transmitted actively or passively. Soldiers will also be able to control more than one system at a time and not just one type of robot.
A common controller will reduce the cognitive load on the soldiers and provide the ability to share information, Anulare said. And such a controller will reduce the logistics footprint because not every UGV will have to come with its own individual controller.
An RFP for a common controller to be used at battalion levels and below is due out in about a month and a half, McVeigh said.
The UGV program office is working closely with its counterparts in the program office overseeing unmanned aerial systems to decide within a year whether the common controller idea can be expanded to cover both aerial and ground drones, McVeigh noted.
The National Advanced Mobility Consortium pulled together industry partners and recently demonstrated the ability to control surrogate ground robots using the architecture that the Army is using for CRS(I) and the operating system used for unmanned aircraft systems Puma and Raven, "so this isn’t science fiction, this is reality," he added.
On the heavier side
Further down the road, the Army will focus on procuring a Common Robotic System (Heavy), a vehicle-transportable system weighing 500 to 1,000 lbs to perform "highly dexterous manipulation procedures" for EOD and disarming vehicle-borne IEDs from a safe distance, according to a presentation slide included in the briefing at Selfridge.
The CRS(H) UGV will also be designed to easily reconfigure with various modules and payloads.
A materiel development decision is anticipated in fiscal 2018 and the Army plans to procure 225 systems for EOD units.
The Army is also preparing to release an RFP this month for a new Route Clearance Interrogation System that takes the soldier out of the loop in route clearance operations, according to McVeigh.
And the service is working on how to add autonomous capabilities to the Husky Mounted Detection System, he added.
The Army will also move out this year to procure a Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport system with plans to hold a "rodeo" in the August or September time frame for industry to demonstrate capabilities. The service will then select a winning system that will be given to three infantry battalions or brigades to use for a year to help solidify requirements for a future system, McVeigh said.
Moving forward in executing the recently published Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy, service officials will work on leader-follower technology where a manned lead truck would be followed by three unmanned vehicles in a convoy.
The idea is to be able to increase the number of convoys that can run in a 24-hour period and keep soldiers out of harm’s way, McVeigh said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.