To Proliferate, Robots Must Help Military Reduce Personnel Costs

8/16/2011
By Stew Magnuson
There have been many roadblocks to proliferating autonomous ground robots on battlefields. Cultural acceptance of mechanized soldiers and safety concerns topped the list.
But with the current budget climate, affordability will also have to be considered. Proponents of such systems will have to make the case that robotic systems can save the Pentagon money, Maj. Gen. Walter R. Davis, deputy director and chief of staff of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said Aug. 16 at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.
"Everything is going to be contested" in the current budget climate, he said. "For us, everything is about cost-benefit analysis right now .... The enabling capabilities that are provided by unmanned systems is unquestioned right now," he added.
But where robotics proponents are challenged most frequently is that they have yet to reduce the number of personnel required on the battlefield, Davis said. An example is the unmanned aerial systems realm. Unpiloted aircraft divisions require just as many people to operate the systems as their manned counterparts.
Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch said unmanned autonomous robots can proliferate on the battlefield for just that reason. They can reduce the number of boots on the ground.
Lynch was the former commanding general of Fort Hood, Texas, and the Army’s 3rd Armored Corps, when he delivered an impassioned speech at the same conference in Washington, D.C., in 2009.
He said then that he had lost 155 soldiers in combat in Iraq. The lives of 80 percent, or 122 of them, would have been saved if the right robots had been in place.
Lynch has unique credentials in the Army. He has commanded troops in combat and holds a master’s degree in robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Shortly after the speech, he was promoted to his present job, which has little to do with robotics. Industry leaders lamented the loss of Lynch as a strong advocate for ground robots in the Army.
Two years after that speech, Lynch was back at the same conference, and said not much has changed.
The Army has failed to field the right kinds of robots that would save war fighters’ lives. He does not consider remotely controlled device real robots, although there is a place for them on the battlefield, he said.
“I’m talking about a system that has a certain degree of autonomy,” he said. He listed driverless trucks that can follow each other in convoys and autonomous combat vehicles that would shadow manned counterparts as some of the technology that is mature enough to be fielded, but have not reached troops.
It was essentially the same speech he gave two years ago.
There has been some progress since then, he said. "But it is not at the rate I would like to see," he said.
He maintained that many of these technologies were still ready to be fielded. The main thing these robots can do is save lives by taking soldiers out of harm's way, he said. But autonomy can provide the business case that senior leaders are looking for. As the leader of the Army Installations Command, he must reduce his work force by 7,000 civilian personnel, he said. Perimeter defense and logistics can be performed by robots, he said.
Drivers could be taken off roads as well. "We could have done convoy following a long time ago, but for whatever reason, we haven't done that," he said.
Lynch will retire in a little more than 90 days. He said he would like to spend his post-military years following his passions. And one of those passions remains robotics, he said.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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