The next time Marines storm ashore, they could be accompanied by a menagerie of autonomous robots, which some service leaders see as the answer to some tricky logistical challenges.
Unmanned systems could remove Marines from the risky tasks of resupply and casualty evacuation, said Capt. Warren V. Watts II, project officer for the Warfighting Lab’s technology division.
The Warfighting Lab, in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has several autonomous robotic systems under development that are designed to aid with logistical tasks.
One is a gas-powered robotic mule, officially known as the legged squad support system.
Joining the LS3 could be a small ground unmanned soldier surrogate (GUSS) — basically a ruggedized gas-powered golf cart that can drive itself — and a 7-ton cargo truck with a similar autonomous drive system called the Cargo Unmanned Ground Vehicle.
GUSS is designed to carry Marines’ gear and has several autonomous modes that allow it be controlled directly from the driver’s seat, by remote control or without supervision. Engineers hope that it might haul ammunition, food and water on patrol, and then transport wounded Marines out of harm’s way without assistance.
LS3 and the Cargo UGV, operate in similar ways, but are designed primarily to carry equipment and supplies without constant human supervision.
So far, the three platforms have proven useful in limited roles. Each is still in some phase of testing to determine its feasibility in combat and to develop procedures for its use, Watts said. No plans exist for deploying any of them to active units, but the LS3 is scheduled for operational testing by 2014. The robotic mule underwent two weeks of field-testing in December at Ft. Pickett, Va., the latest milestone in DARPA’s $54 million LS3 program.
Troops have already seen success in Afghanistan with robotic resupply by air. The K-Max unmanned autonomous helicopter, which can ferry gear as far as 100 miles without a pilot, has moved millions of pounds of equipment to and from forward operating bases in that war since December 2011. Marines liked the helicopters so much, the system’s tour of duty was indefinitely extended in late 2012.
Integrating robotics technology into Marine ground units can be an uphill battle, Watts explained. Thorough testing and evaluation is required before skeptical troops will trust their equipment, or potentially their lives, to a machine, he said.
“You’re trusting something that has its own brain, when you don’t know everything it’s going to do,” Watts said. “But we are getting positive feedback from most Marines that have used these systems. They find problems with their operation, tell us how to refine them and then want to use it again.”