BAE Systems Eyeing Opportunities for Unmanned Combat Vehicle
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – BAE Systems is reintroducing an unmanned combat vehicle prototype as the Army pursues “robotic wingman” technology.
The company showed off its Armed Robotic Combat Vehicle March 13 on the opening day of the Association of the United States Army’s Global Symposium. Previously known as the Black Knight, the tele-operated platform was developed for the Army’s Future Combat Systems program, which was canceled in 2009.
“We brought it to the show not because we’re pushing this specific vehicle, but because the Army just released their strategy on autonomy and robotics, and we thought, 'What a good opportunity to get a conversation going,'” James Miller, BAE’s director of business development for combat vehicles, told National Defense.
The system was designed to be remotely operated from the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
“A soldier back there would operate it much like you would operate a UAS [unmanned aerial system],” Miller said.
A dismounted operator could also pilot the track vehicle with a hand-held kit, he noted.
“He could either follow behind it like we drove it in here the other day, or he could be in a foxhole or … under cover and operate the vehicle on the battlefield,” he said.
This type of platform would bring several advantages, he added.
“You put this into high risk places where you don’t want to risk people’s lives,” Miller said. “You give yourself additional capability with a wingman to augment the force you have on your Bradley or whatever the primary vehicle is. And then it has the capability of course to go out and do reconnaissance by itself. And with [its cannon and machine gun] it can engage a target.”
BAE has been working with Carnegie Mellon since Future Combat Systems was terminated to further develop the robotics technology. As the company considers how to proceed, it wants to engage Army officials to discuss the road ahead.
“We’re interested in whether we should continue to invest [and] what’s our timing for investment,” Miller said. “It’s important to understand where the Army is going.”
Service officials are planning to host a technology demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia, in August or September, according to Maj. Michael Dvorak, robotics branch chief at the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
“They’re going to do a demo for two things” he told National Defense. “One is a robotic wingman demo, which is really just employing a tele-operated Humvee with a machine gun on top. And it’s really a proof of concept.
“The other piece is the Abrams lethality enabler capability. … It’s actually seeing if you put an autoloader in an M1, can you then have that fourth soldier operate unmanned ground or aerial systems” from inside the tank?
Miller said BAE might consider participating at the event.
“We’re just starting to hear about it at this show, but it sounds like the Army is going to want to try something later this year,” he said. “They’re talking about some kind of in-the-field demonstration. And so as we have these discussions, one of the questions we have is should we have a role in that? Can we have a role in that … just to see if we’re on the right track or not?”
Robots and autonomous systems have been identified as key capability areas for Army investment in the coming years. Nevertheless, industry observers shouldn’t expect to see advanced robotic ground combat vehicles roving around the battlefield in the near term, Dvorak said.
“The Army needs to take baby steps to achieve some type of unmanned vehicle that can operate with … its mounted armored formations,” he said.
One step might be to add an applique robotic system to an existing platform such as the M113 armored personnel carrier. Soldiers could work at controlling the vehicle for navigational purposes and controlling whatever payloads are on it, he said.
In the coming years “I think the Army is going to start to look at how you remotely operate something like a 113 … and then what sensors do you want to put on there? What capabilities do you want?” Dvorak said.
The service’s robotics and autonomous systems strategy, released earlier this month, calls for fielding unmanned combat vehicles with advanced payloads in the 2021 to 2030 timeframe. Dvorak said it would probably be at least five to seven years before that happens because of the lengthy requirements and documentation approval process, and the need to further develop the technology.
The Army’s modernization accounts have been hit hard by budget cuts over the past five years. Although that trend might be reversed under the Trump administration, robotic ground combat vehicles will still have to compete for limited procurement dollars.
From a cost perspective, “it would make the most sense right now for the Army to look at adding applique systems to existing vehicles,” he said. “Maybe an increment 2 or phase 2 will be a purpose-built system.”