Are humans with robots an order of magnitude better than humans without robots? It’s the question the Army’s Maneuver Center for Excellence is hoping to solve through trial and experimentation. The National Advanced Mobility Consortium posted a request for white papers Aug. 5 about technologies that might have a place in a robotic, artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy technology demonstration at Fort Benning in September 2020.

This project is long in the works, with an announcement of intent dating back to March 2019. The premise, as stated in the March announcement, is to “show a path towards an Army capability that will provide a robotically equipped dismounted infantry platoon that is 10 times more effective than the current dismounted infantry platoon.”

In order to do this, the Maneuver Center for Excellence, together with Fort Benning’s Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate’s Robotics Requirements Division, is exploring robotic systems for “ground, air, water,” as well as the virtual space — otherwise known as the four platonic elements of terrestrial war. These robots and systems should be able to improve “mobility, protection, situational awareness, endurance, persistence, and depth” as well as, and this is key, lethality.

Taken together, the robots should lend an advantage to the platoon’s OODA loop — its ability to observe, orient, decide and act — with the goal that a robot-enabled platoon completes OODA-loop cycles 10 times faster than it would without robots. That’s a tremendous amount of promise to put in remote systems, especially since the present paradigm of controlled robotic battlefield tools involves a lot of human observers and controllers checking on, managing, and directing the robots. (The process by which humans are actively involved in robot control is “in the loop” or, with more passive robot monitoring termed “on the loop.”)

If robots are going to improve soldier situational awareness by an order of magnitude, they will have to be autonomous. And not just autonomous in movement, but autonomous in sensing, data processing, and in providing that information back to the platoon.

Part of this vision involves robots themselves producing intelligence products that are both immediate and ephemeral, useful in the tactical moment and then gone before they can become out of date. Another piece is machines autonomously moving through and responding to the environment on their own, as exercises undertaken by DARPA and the Marine Corps have already explored. If that same autonomy will extend to robot lethality, or if weapons will stay in the hands of humans, remains to be determined.

In preparation for the September 2020 exercise, Georgia Tech Research Institute is designated to serve as the technology integrator for the assessment and demonstration parts of the task. As the industry proposals are vetted to meet Army needs, some will receive a Request for Prototype Proposal, and will also be evaluated in a simulation exercise to see if they will be part of the 2020 exercise.

Interested parties should look to the National Advanced Mobility Consortium’s posted request, and to the earlier proposal announcement, for more specific guidance. Interested observers, meanwhile, should keep an eye on September 2020 in Georgia, where the Army will see if the future of war is really 10 times as promising as expected.

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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