Robotic Mules Ready to Be Fielded, Vendors Say
The Army fielded its first four driverless vehicles designed to autonomously haul supplies for foot soldiers in Afghanistan late this summer. The Lockheed Martin-built squad mission support system (SMSS), a six-wheeled semi-autonomous vehicle weighing 3,800 pounds, is intended to carry heavy loads in the mountainous country. Taking the burden off of overloaded soldiers and marines has been a long-standing problem in the military. The surge into Afghanistan, where roads are poor, and the terrain is hilly, has forced troops to go on more foot patrols. That in turn is prompting the Army to finally allow autonomous robots into war zones.
“It’s a crawl, walk, run situation,” said Mark Bodwell, group manager of military affairs business development at John Deere. Vendors have robots that can perform the task, but concerns about how to integrate robotic systems into a unit’s tactics, techniques and procedures has stymied their deployment, he said.
The squad mission support system will help inform Army leaders on how that may work.
If the SMSS ever becomes a formal program, vendors have robots ready to compete with Lockheed Martin.
John Deere has an autonomous version of its M-Gator four-wheeled ground vehicle. Gators are small utility vehicles, which the company has been selling to the military for 13 years. John Deere married an autonomous robotics package to its military model to create the R-Gator unmanned ground vehicle.
When it comes to automating dirty, dangerous or dull tasks performed in vehicles, the company, better known for its tractors and combines, is one of the largest robotics companies in the world, Bodwell said.
“Most of the big tractors you see out in the field have things like mapping and planning, GPS coordination, driver’s assist — a series of robotics that we didn’t have 20 years ago because farming has changed so much,” he said.
The software is based on leader-follower techniques. In this mode, a soldier commands the robot to stay a certain distance behind as he walks.
“The real secret [of leader-follower] is how do you do that and what’s the use for the war fighter,” he said. “When someone says follow me, that can mean a lot of different things.” It could mean following 30 minutes later, or flanking, he said.
The idea was to create an affordable robot by putting inexpensive commercial-off–the-shelf cameras and sensors aboard to help it navigate. The collision avoidance radar is the same one found on Cadillac bumpers, for example.
“What you end up with is a robotic chassis that’s at a high technical readiness level,” he said.
The more autonomy that is built into the robot, the more expensive it becomes, he noted. Add an expensive forward-looking infrared radar, or complex autonomy algorithms, and suddenly it becomes a $1 million, unaffordable vehicle, he said.
Israeli Aerospace Industries Ltd. is also offering a logistics robot, the REX infantry robotic porter.
Uri Paz-Meidan, the project manager for the company’s innovation team, said the REX also uses simple autonomy programming in order to keep the price down.
The REX can carry about 200 kilograms. A soldier commands it to stay a certain distance behind and then leaves electronic breadcrumbs for it to follow.
Like the U.S. military, Israeli forces have yet to adopt the robot, and IAI hasn’t sold any yet. But the robot is ready, he said.
“It exists today, it works today and it could be deployed tomorrow,” Paz-Meidan said.
QinetiQ North America has one robot already in theater that can carry supplies on Afghanistan’s terrain. The Raider I engineer IED vehicle was sent there to help soldiers defeat improvised explosive devices. It has rollers attached to the front and back to detonate buried bombs. However, it also has the space to carry batteries, food and water.
That is in keeping with the company’s philosophy of making ground robots serve dual purposes. Most are designed to carry out one specific task. Executives believe that the best way for the technology to proliferate on the battlefield is to give them several jobs to perform.
The company, along with Polaris Defense, recently introduced the Raider II, which it hopes to one day compete against Lockheed Martin if the SMSS robot ever becomes a program of record.
The Raider II has more autonomy built into its system than its competitors, said Jason Montano, product manager at QinetiQ’s unmanned systems group. For example, it could arrive at a forward operating base, and then be commanded to return to its point of origin on its own.
It is designed to hold one squad’s worth of equipment, everything from water, ammunition, food and rucksacks.
“It’s a very sophisticated autonomous vehicle and it has to be for safety purposes,” he said. The goal is to reach speeds of 30 miles per hour.
Both QintetiQ and John Deere’s robots double as manned vehicles, so a soldier or marine could jump in and drive it away if needed. They also have controllers so they can be tele-operated.
Bodwell said the military is no longer on the cutting edge for these kinds of robotic systems.
“You’re going to see a lot of this technology in the commercial world before you see it in the military. It used to be the other way,” he said.