Marines Counting on Robots to Keep Them Out of Harm’s Way

By Dan Parsons

Marine Corps researchers are on the constant lookout for technologies that can keep ground troops out of harm’s way or make their tough jobs easier. Autonomous robots — on land, sea and in the air — are increasingly seen as an end to that means.

“The potential out there in the field is enormous,” Brig. Gen. Mark Wise, commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said during a recent technology demonstration at Fort Pickett, Va. Robots that can move and perform tasks on their own with little or no human intervention can have an impact beyond their initial purpose, he said. The machines can free up Marines to do numerous other tasks, and make small units more effective.

Taking the technology from test ranges to the field has been the hard part. In the case of the warfighting lab, Wise is chartered only to identify new capabilities and report on their effectiveness, not to recommend any purchases.

Autonomy also faces backlash when it threatens the status quo, said Stan DeGeus, senior business director for unmanned surface vessels at Textron Systems. The Air Force has had more than a decade of solid experience flying unmanned aircraft in war zones and still its programs have integrated autonomous operation with caution and sometimes reluctance. Autonomous flight is primarily employed for long-term surveillance and reconnaissance. Offensive missions require a human to actively monitor the UAV, and to regain control before a weapon is fired.

“There are a lot of paradigms that have to be broken for these technologies to gain acceptance and become programs of record,” DeGeus said.

Nevertheless, an autonomous helicopter is making inroads as a cargo delivery vehicle in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps is also testing robotic trucks that could reduce its logistical footprint.

Industry officials believe the Navy could benefit by automating mine hunting and intelligence gathering at sea, among other missions.

Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, Marine Corps deputy commandant for combat development and integration, recently observed autonomous truck technology at the Fort Pickett technology demonstration. A 37-year veteran, Mills said he is open to any technology that would improve efficiency and keep troops safe.

Mills praised the technology for its potential to quickly evacuate wounded Marines and lighten the load they carry — which are two of his greatest concerns.

“It reduces the risk to all Marines … that’s the most important thing,” Mills said.

Autonomous systems are being marketed to the Pentagon as less-expensive alternatives to current programs and technologies. By reducing the number of troops needed to complete a mission, the vehicles cut back dramatically on personnel and logistics costs, manufacturers insist.

Mills agreed, but said the systems must be thoroughly tested before being bought in large numbers. The same fiscal constraint that makes autonomy attractive compels the services to vet them heavily and choose wisely, he said.

“Our decision is going to be tough because we don’t have a lot of money. So we have to make sure these things are well thought through,” Mills said. “Sometimes failure is just as valuable as success. We may find out it’s a nice thing to have but it doesn’t really work on the battlefield.”

Marines at the warfighting lab are testing two vehicles that can operate without human drivers.

The Cargo Unmanned Ground Vehicle, an autonomous 7-ton truck developed by Oshkosh Defense, is designed to reduce the number of troops needed to run supply convoys — a frequent target of insurgent ambushes and roadside bombs.

Using the autonomous drive system, Marines can reduce the personnel required for a typical convoy by 19 percent. An eight-truck resupply mission, for instance, could be carried out by 26 troops instead of 32. As the technology matures, that number likely will reduce, Oshkosh engineers said. The trucks can be set to continuously run designated routes with complete autonomy or be remotely driven by someone at a ground station or riding in another truck. Because the autonomous drive system is retrofitted onto existing vehicles, with the flip of a switch they can be driven manually.

Smaller and more agile, but lightly armored, the Ground Unmanned Soldier Surrogate developed by Blacksburg, Va.-based TORC Robotics can evacuate casualties from combat situations, do small-unit resupply and carry gear for a squad of Marines.

It takes six men to attend to a wounded Marine, half a rifle squad. Vehicles like GUSS could relieve this burden by pulling fewer personnel from a unit to evacuate wounded troops. Keeping more troops in the fight increases the safety of other Marines as well.

But, as Wise pointed out, “You’re not going to get the 100-percent solution right off the bat. That’s why we bring these things out here to test them out.”

Marines testing the GUSS vehicle at Fort Pickett were impressed by the technology but less enamored with its potential usefulness in combat. Lance Cpl. J.D. Powers, with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, said the vehicle would be impractical in Afghanistan.

“It’s way too loud and gives away our position,” Powers, who is in charge of operating the GUSS for his unit, said. “The technology works great, but it’s much more practical on the 7-ton trucks.”

“If you put it on something more durable, it would be good,” added Sgt. Martin Pallares.

Oshkosh engineers say their autonomous drive system can be adapted to any size ground vehicle. TORC engineers said the same of the GUSS. But the technology that allows them to navigate without a driver is limited. Neither fluidly avoids obstacles like a human operator. If the CUGV’s sensors are too sensitive, the 7-ton truck will stop for a cardboard box in its path, or even a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Too little sensitivity to obstacles and the truck will barrel into or through anything it encounters. The sensors can be calibrated, but not adjusted on the move.

Still, Marines testing the gear have found uses for even the small, thinly armored GUSS. The vehicle can be set to follow a Marine wearing a beacon at a certain distance, can be guided by remote, driven manually, or travel with no supervision along a predetermined course. Loaded up with heavy gear, the vehicle could change the way Marines move and what they are able to carry.

“Lugging MREs and water, not to mention ammo — it sucks,” said Pallares. “If I can put all that stuff on the GUSS, I can move a lot faster when the enemy comes at us.”

Pallares and his fellow Marines also believe the technology could be used to scout roads for improvised explosive devices and for spotting snipers or enemy scouts at night using thermal sensors.

“Sometimes it’s good to have a vehicle when you might not [have one] otherwise,” Pallares said. “At night, for instance, it could be a real benefit.”

Before Marines ever get a chance to use robotic trucks, they will have to come ashore safely. Undersea mines are a threat in many parts of the world where the amphibious fighters may find themselves going ashore.

Here, too, autonomy is seen as a method of neutralizing mines without putting sailors and Marines at risk. Textron Systems has developed the Common Unmanned Surface Vessel to do just that. The vehicle’s autonomous mine-hunting abilities were successfully tested in July at the Navy Fleet Experiment Trident Warrior, part of the Rim of the Pacific Exercises.

“Many in the Navy didn’t think this was even possible,” said DeGeus. “We did a lot of myth busting. The CUSV can find and destroy mines, day or night, in real time.”

With a single operator at a remote control station, two of the 37-foot unmanned boats located and mock-detonated several mines using unmanned submersible vehicles launched from their rear bays during the RIMPAC exercises. That job is currently done by mine countermeasures vessels that carry a crew of 70 or more.

“I think the most important thing these vessels do is get the man out of the minefield,” DeGeus said. “We didn’t make counter-mine warfare easy. It’s still a diabolical threat, but we can make it safer and more efficient with this technology.”

The vessels have a modular rear bay that also accepts payloads for anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance. They can also perform constant monitoring, intelligence and reconnaissance and decoy-and-deception missions.

The CUSV could autonomously sweep an entire minefield in several hours.

“But you’re putting no sailors in danger,” DeGeus said. “These will provide cost-effective way of maintaining a constant presence at a fraction of the cost.”

Marines in Afghanistan are already saving money and lives employing autonomous technology. They have been using an unmanned robotic helicopter to deliver food and ammo to forward operating bases.

The K-Max rotorcraft developed by Lockheed Martin can deliver supplies up to 100 miles with no one at the controls. Marines need only hook and unhook the gear while the helicopter hovers overhead.

Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who recently returned from a year-long deployment as commander of the 2nd Marine Division, said in April that the helicopters had been an unmitigated success. The Marine Corps awarded Lockheed a contract to fly two of the helicopters until the end of this fiscal year, and perhaps beyond. Their experimental deployments were recently extended.

“I don’t think they’ll let them come out of there,” Toolan said, about a month before the aircraft’s tour was originally scheduled to end. “We were using them every day.”

So far, the two aircraft have flown about six resupply flights per day, totaling over 500 missions. The optionally piloted aircraft has lifted nearly 2 million pounds since it was deployed in December, and recently began returning loads from forward operating bases, as well as performing its primary resupply function.

Jon McMillen, Lockheed’s business development manager for unmanned systems, said recently the company could “keep them in Afghanistan as long as they want to keep them there.”

That could be a while if the aircraft continue to perform as well as Toolan said they had done.

“You can shoot at this thing as much as you want to,” Toolan said. “There’s nobody on board to get hurt and that’s great.”

Photo Credit: Textron Systems

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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