Army Speeding Up Robotics Acquisition Process

By Connie Lee
By 2025, the Army sees ground troops conducting foot patrols in urban terrain with robots—called Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport vehicles—that carry rucksacks and other equipment.

Defense Department

The Army is pursuing new strategies to field ground robots quicker as it prepares for future battles.

For more than a year, the service has adopted a “strategy of adapt, evolve and innovate,” said Mark Mazzara, robotics interoperability lead for the program executive office for combat support and combat service support.

Now, the Army is looking to rapidly develop these systems using acquisition tools such as directed requirements and operational needs statements, he said at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

“The big difference now is … we’re talking about faster is better and taking risks in favor of accelerating programs,” Mazzara said.

For instance, the Army was able to accelerate the fielding schedule for the man transportable robotic system increment 2, he noted. Endeavor Robotics won the contract for the development of a lightweight, portable system that can perform reconnaissance on the battlefield and conduct explosive ordnance disposal missions. Although the company was awarded an engineering and manufacturing development contract at the end of 2017, the service eliminated some technical reviews and plans to go straight to conditional materiel release to speed up the timeline, Mazzara said.

The service is taking the same steps for the common robotic system — individual, or CRS(I), a smaller system that provides soldiers with reconnaissance capabilities on a lower level, he added. A contract is slated to be awarded for the program within the next couple of months. Documents for the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request state full-rate production is scheduled for fiscal year 2021.

The Army is also leveraging other transaction authorities provided by the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Brig. Gen. Clement Coward Jr., deputy director for force protection on the Joint Staff, J-8, said. These allow the service to carry out prototype projects prior to developing enduring programs of record and solidify the requirements for systems, he noted.

“We’re going to buy a limited number of things [and] we’re going to develop prototypes,” he said. “We’ve got to put them in the hands of soldiers in formations and we need to essentially play with those, break them, understand how to operate differently with those technologies, and understand if we’ve got the requirement right,” he explained.

The service is currently employing this strategy with the squad multi-purpose equipment transport, or SMET, vehicle by downselecting prototypes from industry, he noted. In 2017, the Army chose a number of companies to provide different systems for operational tests. Applied Research Associates-Polaris’ MRZR-X, General Dynamics Land Systems’ MUTT, Howe and Howe Technologies’ Punisher and HDT Global’s Wolf were kept in the running after a recent downselect. The competition may conclude as early as 2019 and plans include fielding up to 5,700 vehicles, officials said.

It is essential for the Army to keep an eye on the rate of technology development, said Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, director of business transformation at the service’s office of the under secretary of the Army.

“Each [system] proceeds at a different pace driven at the rate of technology and at the rate of our ability to creatively employ that technology in a relevant manner,” he said.

The Army also recently stood up the Training and Doctrine Command Project Office for Maneuver Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Fort Benning, Georgia. Col. William Nuckols, the office’s director, said in an interview his team is working on developing a “holistic strategy” for autonomous systems within its portfolio, such as CRS(I) and SMET.

“Part of that effort would be to analyze the [capability] gaps, to understand what we need … [to] prioritize those gaps, and then develop a strategy accordingly that takes into account funding,” he said. “[From] squad to platoon to company to battalion, how can we get the greatest capability into the hands of soldiers and be able to afford to do it?”

One goal includes developing a common architecture for robotics systems, which would allow the service to “plug and play” a variety of technologies into a platform to give it different capabilities, he noted.

For instance, SMET could have multiple applications. While its current purpose is to serve as an autonomous system for transporting soldiers’ gear, the Army could potentially use it as a robotic weapons platform or to transport mortar systems, he said.

“It’s more about the common architecture, the ability to plug and play different capabilities onto a single system,” he added. “It can do more than one thing ... or do one thing better in the future without having to go out and buy a new system” or ask the original manufacturer to integrate these capabilities.

The push for autonomous systems may also be reflected in future budgets, Nuckols said. While the “slice of the pie for robotics right now is relatively small … it is growing,” he said.
Coward said he expects the Army to provide a program manager for robotics in the future.

“We’re aligning the communities of practice, we’re aligning processes and we’re aligning resources,” he said. “Those things must come together in order for us to quickly deliver capabilities to the force.”

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for ground robotics contains a $15.4 million increase in research, development, test and evaluation funding over the fiscal year 2018 president’s request for a total of $86.2 million, according to budget justification documents. Much of the funding boost is geared toward increased requirements for the Common Robotic System (Heavy) program, a new start for fiscal year 2019, and the heightened testing and payload efforts for SMET, the documents state.

The total RDT&E ground robotics portfolio includes man transportable robotic system increment 2; robotics architecture; common robotics systems; SMET; robotics enhanced program; soldier-borne sensor; MTRS standardization; and the common robotic controller.

Additionally, work on a future robotic combat vehicle is expected to be well-funded, Nuckols said. The service has been exploring this idea since the days of Future Combat Systems, he noted, referencing a major effort to integrate these capabilities and develop a family of vehicles that was canceled in 2009.

“Until we actually start doing it and putting some of these capabilities in the hands of our soldiers, we’re not going to learn, we’re never going to move forward,” he noted.

While the service is still developing requirements for the future system, Nuckols said it could potentially be an unmanned platform that will deliver decisive lethality and work with a new manned vehicle.

The vehicle could possibly be a 25- to 28-ton unmanned tank with a 120 mm cannon, he said.

“It could also be a much smaller, lighter vehicle that simply is tasked with finding the enemy and then decisive lethality is delivered by some other means. And it could be both,” he said. The Army hopes to build prototypes for experimentation and testing between 2020 and 2021, he noted, although it could potentially be accelerated to between 2019 and 2020.

Autonomous systems are also expected to change the way the Army fights, Cardon noted. While close combat has not diminished, these technologies are expected to make the battlefield more lethal and weapons more precise. By integrating systems into the current portfolio, soldiers have the ability to reduce human error, he said, noting that the way the Army uses its weapons will change. The service will have to explore ways to work with precise machines that don’t tire out and have no emotion, he added.

As the Army continues to build these capabilities, it will ensure that a human is always in the loop when using lethal force, Cardon said. However, enemies on the battlefield may not have this same requirement, he pointed out.

“We should not assume that our potential adversaries will follow the same rules,” he noted.

In the future, the Army hopes to provide every autonomous system with the ability to be optionally manned, Coward said. Within 10 to 15 years, the service wants to have robotic systems that can be integrated into both ground and air operations, he noted.

“We think that we can gain advantages to increase our competitive edge through manned and unmanned teaming to increase their … endurance, persistence, lethality, protection and depth,” he said.

But the Army needs to keep in mind that the future battlefield is expected to include urban environments, Coward noted. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has long emphasized that soldiers will need to fight in megacities, meaning that they must increase their maneuverability and learn to operate within smaller units.

Coward said the service must prepare its autonomous systems for these environments, where reliable communications is the “Achilles’ heel” for robotics. Soldiers also need devices that will give them “standoff distance” within formations, he added.

However, the service must ensure that it does not employ “robotics for robotics sake,” he noted. Rather, autonomous capabilities must fit into the service’s fighting strategy.

“My neighbor has a big fat gray cat. I don’t need a big fat gray cat just because my neighbor’s got one, right?” he said. “What I need is a capability that’s going to help my formations and be more effective.

“If we don’t understand how it empowers our soldiers and what they need it to do, then we’re probably just chasing technology for technology’s sake.

Topics: Acquisition, Acquisition Programs, Army News, Emerging Technologies

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