Few Opportunities Seen for U.S. Military Ground Robot Sales
With shrinking budgets and the end of major operations in Afghanistan on the horizon, there are only a few niche sales opportunities for the makers of ground combat robots remaining, industry and military officials have said this week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International show in Washington, D.C.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars saw several robot models introduced to the battlefield for the first time to counter roadside bombs and provide reconnaissance and surveillance. The Army will be divesting itself of about half of those mechanized soldiers, said Lt. Col. Stuart Hatfield, soldier systems and unmanned ground systems branch chief, Army G-8.
Not only is the demand for these robots decreasing, many of them are simply at the end of their service lives after seven or eight years of wear and tear, he said.
The Army's $500 million small unmanned autonomous ground vehicle, or SUGV, program was canceled in 2011. The program was a survivor of the now-defunct Future Combat Systems. It was intended to be a reconnaissance robot to accompany small units.
Hatfield said the Army, along with the Marine Corps, have aspirations to field a joint, multi-mission ground robot similar to SUGV, but so far they are only aspirations. He is waiting for requirements for a ground robot to come from Army Training and Doctrine Command. When he has those documents in hand, then he can go out and compete with other Army programs for funding. However, he did not anticipate any money for such a program until the 2016-to-2020 budget cycle.
The only ground robot program of record is the Navy's Advanced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System, which will field a family of three vehicles — small, medium and large. The Navy is not buying complete robots, but rather the various subsystems such as robotic arms, chassis, sensors and so on, to integrate.
An award to choose a lead systems integrator to take the individual modules and meld them together into the first of the three robots is "imminent," said Byron Brezina, the system's program manager. That integrator will then manufacture the robots, but it will not carry the company's brand name. The small robot will have nine subcomponents to be integrated. The larger versions will have about 12 or 13 modules, he said.
There will be ongoing competitions to improve and add components as technology advances and threats change, Brezina said. There will not be any sole source contractors, he added.
"This is going to increase competition and innovation," he said.
At $150 million, the initial contract to be the integrator and manufacturer is highly sought after in the industry, said Mike Knopp, director of Northrop Grumman Remotec. The work will last 12 to 18 months and will call for the final integration of the nine modules that will comprise the robot and the delivery of the first four systems.
"Given the budgetary situation and it being the only [unmanned ground vehicle] program of record right now, that is a pretty significant pursuit for industry," Knopp said.
After that, it is speculative as to how much work the winner of the contract will gain from the Navy. It will most likely be an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract, which the military uses to procure items as needed, Knopp said.
Robot manufacturers such as Remotec will have to content itself with competing for the dozen or so individual modules that will eventually be integrated onto the medium and heavy versions of the Navy EOD robots. Development of those two systems are a year or two behind the small, backpackable version, Brezina said.
Remotec recently introduced its new Titus robot, but has no hopes that the U.S. military will purchase them "off the shelf" even though it would be the perfect size for the Navy's medium-sized EOD robot at about 135 pounds. Instead, the company hopes modules such as its manipulator arm or its mobility features might make it as a subsystem on the medium or large versions of the Navy advanced EOD robots.
Meanwhile, Remotec is looking at the first-responder market — in which it is well established as a supplier — and overseas for customers. It has sold seven of the new model Titus robots to an undisclosed South American customer, and one to the city of Tampa, Fla.
Similarly, iRobot, recently sold 30 robots to Brazil for its government to use during various international events being held in that country, said Mark Belanger, director of Department of Defense robotic products.
iRobot was one of the two manufacturers that benefitted from the urgent need to rapidly field off-the-shelf bomb disposal robots in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will still be sales of replacement parts as those robots remain in the four services’ inventories, he said.
The Army is going to keep about 2,400 robots and those will have to be reset and upgraded, he said.
There may be other niche opportunities in the U.S. military for robots outside of the EOD communities, he said. Now that the robots have proven their utility in the field, and the conflicts are winding down, entities such as Special Forces or the chemical, biological, nuclear detection communities may take a look at how robots can help their missions, Belanger said.
"People are taking a deep breath now and working on their tactics, techniques and procedures and developing their new concepts of operation. And most of those guys are interested in dismounted small robots," he said.