MARINE CORPS TRAINING AREA-BELLOWS, HAWAII — Most of the services are embracing robots faster than companies can manufacture them.
The Air Force has its Predators and Reapers. The Army will soon fly the Predator family’s latest addition, the Gray Eagle, in greater numbers. Meanwhile, the Navy is preparing to operate robotic boats, underwater craft and unmanned helicopters.
As for the Marine Corps, it has been lagging behind its peers in the use of robotics because until recently it hadn’t figured out what it wanted to do with the technology. Marines are flying unmanned aircraft as surveillance tools. Now officials want to employ ground robots as a means to reduce casualties from roadside bombs and to lighten the loads on troops.
In partnership with Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is working with Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, Va.-based TORC Technologies to create GUSS, the ground unmanned support surrogate vehicle.
Engineers integrated drive-by-wire technology, sensors and autonomous control mechanisms onto a Polaris all-terrain vehicle. Designed for resupply missions, casualty evacuation and carrying gear, GUSS functions in three modes: tele-operated, semi-autonomous and autonomous.
Operators can control the vehicle using a handheld device called WaySight, which resembles a boxy camcorder. By looking through the viewfinder and pressing a button, they can send GUSS to a designated location. Troops also can drive GUSS in “Wii” mode by turning the WaySight like a steering wheel as it moves along. On the passenger side of the vehicle, there is a removable operator control unit where they can pre-plan a route by using the touch screen interface. GUSS can execute a mission on its own, or it can follow a marine by honing in on his WaySight.
The lab developed four GUSS units, with the fourth vehicle carrying a tele-operated M240G machine gun system called the modular advanced armed robotic system, or MAARS. All four made their way to Hawaii where they were placed into the hands of marines from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment and 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment for an experiment.
Sgt. Benjamin Johns, a squad leader in 2/3’s 3rd Platoon, Golf Company, went on hours-long patrols with GUSS.
“It came in really handy as far as carrying extra water. Some of the patrols we did were five or seven hours long,” he said. Unlike his peers who were operating 30 miles north in the Kahukus Training Area without any vehicles to help them carry water, Johns’ squad was able to load 20 gallons onto GUSS and have it travel alongside the troops on patrol. When their CamelBak hydration systems were depleted, the marines could resupply from GUSS and press onward.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do that without GUSS out there to sustain us because of how hot it was. Everyone was drinking a lot of water,” said Johns.
Sgt. Luke Maxon, a squad leader in 1st Platoon, which did not possess robotic vehicles, said that a number of patrols were sacrificed in the north because his marines quickly ran out of water.
When units came under fire and suffered casualties in the exercise, Johns said that they used GUSS to help evacuate injured marines.
“It cut down the time it would normally take by 300 percent because you didn’t have to take away the manpower,” he said. “Carrying a casualty takes four marines, which is an entire fire team out of the fight, while you’re trying to get a marine to a safe landing zone so that he can be medevaced.”
The robot also helped troops to transition quickly from mission to mission without returning to their base.
Whenever the squad conducted meetings in the mock village with Afghan role players, the marines would take off their helmets and flak jackets and store them on GUSS so that they would not have an aggressive posture when sitting down with civilian leaders. Johns recalled one such meeting when the unit received intelligence about a potentially hostile location a half-kilometer down the road. “We were able to put our gear on really quickly and then move down there to check out what we got from the leader engagement,” he said. Following raids, GUSS was readily available to carry materials and evidence that the unit turned up. In Afghanistan, marines typically have to lug the items back to the base themselves or call for a support team to bring vehicles to collect them.
Johns said the concept of GUSS is a good one, but the vehicle’s object detection sensors are still too immature for operational use.
“You’d kick up dust in front of it and for some reason the sensors would look at that cloud of dust as a wall. And it’ll stop for anywhere from one to five minutes,” Johns pointed out. “In Afghanistan and other urban terrains we’ve been operating in, there’s sand, dust, all sorts of debris that will fly up for no reason, and having it stop all the time makes it useless. You can override it with a remote, but that takes a person having to get out of the fight.”
Obstacle avoidance capability is the Holy Grail, said Brent Azzarelli, chief robotics engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren. “We know there are some areas that need some work.”
Every minute that a marine has to spend operating the robot is a minute that he is not an active member of the 13-marine squad. Andrew Culhane, director of business development at TORC, said the company is working to upgrade vehicle autonomy and navigation capabilities to allow GUSS to operate more like the 14th member of the squad.
Johns reported that the MAARS tracked vehicle was utilized for security and surveillance purposes because it had better sensors for looking at distant objects and because it was quieter than GUSS.
Vince Goulding, director of the experiments division at the warfighting lab, said that autonomous ground vehicles are coming, whether they’re carrying a machine gun or an injured marine, or whether they take the form of a 7-ton truck moving supplies. “We’re looking to do all those things,” he said. “We just want to keep minds open to develop the [tactics, techniques and procedures] we need to have down before we put these things out into the operating forces. And that’s what experimentation is all about.”
Many of the technologies have been developed as a result of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s robotic challenges earlier this decade. The lab’s team was impressed by the autonomy improvements accomplished on GUSS since its previous experiment with the technology more than a year ago.
“GUSS surprised everybody with its growth and technological capability,” said Goulding in a phone interview after returning from Hawaii. “This experiment showed me technologically it’s maturing very quickly.”