Army S&T Efforts Focused on Robotics

By Jon Harper
A soldier remote controls a Kobra 710 during the Pacific Manned Unmanned - Initiative.

Photo: Army

The Army is gung-ho on the warfighting potential of manned-unmanned teaming. As the service prepares to fight advanced adversaries, officials in the science and technology community are prioritizing robotics and autonomy for ground and aerial platforms.


The need for these capabilities was highlighted at the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting and exposition, which was held Oct. 9-11 in Washington, D.C.


Steffanie Easter, acting assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said the service’s S&T efforts must focus on “machine learning and integration of autonomous systems in teams that create synergy and force multipliers for the next generation of combat vehicles.”


Autonomous vehicles could also potentially be used for medical evacuation of wounded soldiers, she noted.


“That’s the type of capability that we need in order to go forward and to fight in a contested domain and to be successful,” she said during a presentation at the conference.


The Army Research Laboratory is focused on advancing the fundamental science of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, said Stuart Young, chief of ARL’s information sciences division.

“Our vision is to enable the teaming of intelligent agents with the soldiers, hence the importance of manned-unmanned teaming,” he said during a presentation.


Robots could allow soldiers to stay of out of harm’s way and improve standoff capabilities, he added.


The Army Research Lab is working on technologies that could be used on the next-generation combat vehicle, he noted. The future platform, also known as NGCV, is expected to be optionally manned, and could eventually replace both the Abrams tank and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.


Service leaders have identified it as their second highest acquisition priority.


Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley, commanding general at the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, said robotics would be a key enabler for the platform.


“Woe be to the Army that attempts to conduct a combined arms breach with anything but an autonomous system,” he told reporters at the conference.


"At minimum we need to have the capability to have both manned and unmanned … capabilities as part of the larger distribution of that formation,” he said. “I’m not prepared to say we’ll go fully autonomous but we know we have the capability to do that. So that becomes a policy decision,” he added.


Young said autonomous ground robots and unmanned aerial vehicles could also be used for logistics or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.


The lab envisions “heterogeneous” groups of drones, unmanned ground systems and soldiers working together, he noted.


Collaboration is already underway among officials at the Army Research Lab, Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, and Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.


“There’s a lot of algorithms that we’re working on,” Young told National Defense. “We’re already working with the UAV guys at AMRDEC. We’re working with the ground guys at TARDEC. There’s a lot of stuff that could go to industry as well.”


The Army is also exploring robotics technologies in the virtual realm. To facilitate rapid prototyping and the development of operating concepts, the service this week launched a beta version of a new gaming initiative called ‘Operation Overmatch’ that soldiers can participate in. It is a component of the Army’s early synthetic prototyping effort.


“We’re currently looking at manned-unmanned teaming at the platoon” level, said Maj. Gen. Robert “Bo” Dyess, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Army Training and Doctrine Command.


“We’ve modeled a few versions of those vehicles that can launch their own unmanned aerial [vehicles] or quadcopters,” he said during a presentation. “We’ve modeled large unmanned ground vehicles that can be used as robotic wingmen.”


Early tests have identified recommendations for improvements for UAV control such as using waypoints, countermeasures, jammers, counter-jammers and radar drone systems, he said.

The gaming system could also help the Army learn more about swarm technology, he added.


Pursuing these efforts in the virtual realm is a way for the Army and industry to save money while exploring new technologies, said Lt. Col. Brian Vogt, simulations operations officer at ARCIC.

“It’s a lower cost environment,” he told National Defense. That’s especially true for smaller companies, he noted.


“Instead of going through the expense of building a physical prototype, they can work with us in getting a virtual prototype in at a fraction” of the cost, he said.


Soldiers who participate in the online game can provide feedback about what they like about the technology, what they don’t like and how they might employ it, Vogt said.


Industry executives see robotics and autonomy as business growth areas. An industry team led by Science Applications International Corp. was recently awarded a contract with a value not to exceed $237 million, to develop two combat vehicle demonstrator platforms for the Army’s NGCV project.


Lockheed Martin will serve as a subcontractor. The company expects to perform system engineering work for the autonomy component, said Becky Withrow, director of business development for Army, special operations forces and advanced programs at Lockheed.


Having an autonomous next-generation combat vehicle is not a pipedream, she said. Commercial companies such as Google have already deployed driverless cars, she noted.


“Although they don’t have the complex terrains that the military has to operate in, I believe that that technology will get” to the point where it could be used in combat vehicles, Withrow said in an interview.


The company has already developed an autonomous mobility appliqué system, known as AMAS, she noted. It is a kit designed for military logistics vehicles that provides driver-warning, driver-assist and leader-follower capabilities.


Lockheed is also investing its own money to further develop its squad mission support system, an unmanned logistics vehicle, she said.


General Dynamics is also keen on unmanned ground vehicle technology.


The company has built three variants of the multi-utility tactical transport vehicle, known as MUTT. The platform comes in wheeled and tracked variants. It can function as a “controller-less small unit robotic follower,” or a remote-controlled or tele-operated system, according to the company.


The Army’s squad mission equipment transport program is in the demonstration phase. The MUTT was one of 10 competitors that participated in a “drive off” at Fort Benning, Georgia, in September, said Patricia Sellers, business development manager at General Dynamics Land Systems.


“We’ve been listening to the Army and the Marines in what their needs are and we have systems that are ready to buy today,” she said in an interview.


It’s possible that unmanned combat vehicles could be deployed in the next five to 10 years, she said.


General Dynamics participated in the Army’s Abrams lethality enabler demonstration, which was held in August at Fort Benning.


The company worked with the Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center to install robotics kits on an M113 armored personnel carrier.


“We demonstrated semi-autonomous capabilities with an operator control unit in one vehicle sitting inside the Abrams tank,” Sellers said.


“We controlled [the M113] from an Abrams — a soldier inside an Abrams turret. And that was to look at could we use a loader in the Abrams turret to control other vehicles. … It was an exercise, a demonstration to let the Army see this is in the realm of the possible now,” she added.


General Dynamics is also keeping an eye on the next-generation combat vehicle project, she said.


“As we learn more about those requirements, we will continually assess what that looks like and what our capabilities can and should be,” she said. “We are prepared to meet the Army’s needs.”


The company might commit internal research-and-development funds to advance the technology in anticipation of what might be required for NGCV, she added.

Topics: Army News, Science and Engineering Technology, Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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