Army Deploying Robotic ‘Mule’ To Troops in Afghanistan

By Grace V. Jean
The Army is deploying an unmanned ground vehicle to troops in Afghanistan for a several-month long evaluation in combat operations. Developed by Lockheed Martin Corp., the squad mission support system is a six-wheeled semi-autonomous vehicle weighing 3,800 pounds that will haul heavy loads for soldiers in the mountainous country.

“This will be the largest autonomous ground vehicle deployed with combat forces,” said Myron Mills, the program’s manager at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “They will have to rethink how they do their jobs,” he said.  

Infantry soldiers have long complained about having to lug rucksacks weighed down by the necessities of modern warfare: batteries for digital devices, communications gear, ammunition and even ladders.

The Army is sending four vehicles to a light infantry unit that is already in theater. Its soldiers are conducting daily patrol operations and are expected to employ the robotic vehicle in those situations to haul the squad’s heavy gear, water, ammunition and other supplies.

The robots will each carry a soldier battery recharge station, capable of replenishing portable power suppliers ranging from AA-sized batteries to the larger energy packs that run military communication gear.

“We think this system is going to offer a lot of versatility,” said Mills.

One of the unique characteristics of the robotic mule is a “follow me” operating mode. The vehicle will memorize the optical profile or shape and size of a person that it is told to follow, and it will track the person and stay a certain distance behind, moving around obstacles that fall in its path.

Lockheed officials are interested to see how often the robots are employed autonomously versus tele-operated, or remotely controlled by a soldier using a touch-screen computer.

To gain insight into their usage in the field, the SMSS development team is providing troops with ruggedized tablets with which they are expected to log pre- and post-mission data.

How the technology fares in combat will help to inform the service’s requirements for future robotic vehicles for squad-sized units. If the vehicles prove their worth in combat, field commanders could request more systems through a rapid-fielding process that speeds new gear to the battlefield. The hope from industry following the combat evaluation is that the Army will decide to develop robotic mules in earnest. A competition might follow in late 2012.

Lockheed Martin has built seven mission support robots so far and has the production capability to manufacture additional vehicles, said Mills. He added that the company this fall also is sending one to Fort Benning, Ga., to participate in the Army’s Expeditionary Warrior experiment. In this case, the “mule” will carry a small Gyrocam Systems sensor on an extendable mast to give soldiers the opportunity to test out the reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities.


Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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