ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Army on Accelerated Path to Buy as Many as 5,700 Robotic Mules
The Army is on a path to field up to 5,700 squad multi-purpose equipment transport robotic vehicles in a winner-takes-all competition that may wrap up as early as 2019.
After more than a decade of experimenting with robotic mules designed to take the load off overburdened foot soldiers, the service is on an accelerated path to award a contract that will take about 15 months total, Mark Mazzara, program manager force projection’s robotics interoperability lead, said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference Feb. 7.
The program is using an “other transaction authority” contracting vehicle to rapidly transition the technology from experiments to a program of record. OTAs are normally used to bring in nontraditional contractors to make prototypes.
“That is significantly faster than we have been able to do previous efforts,” Maj. Gen. John George, director for force development, Army G-8, told reporters. “That is the beauty of the new OTA process. If you have a competition though OTA, you can go to procurement and turn it into a program of record,” George said.
Changes in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to how OTAs can be used make it easier to transition prototypes to programs of record. The Army wants to buy anywhere from 2,700 to 5,700 robotic mules for brigade combat teams depending on affordability and budgets, George said.
The Army is in the middle of selecting a contractor after bringing in seven vendors with eight different vehicles in 2017 to perform operational tests. Those were recently down-selected to four: Applied Research Associates-Polaris’ MRZR-X; General Dynamics Land Systems’ MUTT; Howe and Howe Technologies’ Punisher; and HDT Global’s Wolf.
The Army was awaiting the end of the latest continuing resolution to award each vendor a contract to build 20 prototypes each. That happened two days after George spoke when Congress reached a budget deal Feb. 9.
The 80 prototypes will go to Fort Drum, New York, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
“They are going to get to try these things for a whole year. They are going to learn a lot about how we operate with them, what we need in the systems, what we don’t need. And we are going to do all that before we buy for the rest of the Army,” George said. After these tests wrap up, the Army is looking to a milestone C decision by July 2019.
“That is significantly faster than we have been able to do previous efforts,” George said. A typical program of this kind would take upwards of 10 years, he said. “The Army wants to go faster. It wants and needs to go faster,” he added.
“If we don’t change the way we think about our requirements. If we don’t change the way we acquire and field equipment to our formations, we will be fielding obsolete equipment,” he said.
But this is a “good news story,” he said. “We are doing that because we have learned to hack our own system” and by using the revised other transaction authority rules.
Richard Dunn, founder and consultant with the Strategic Institute for Innovation in Government Contracting, said OTA contracts have transitioned to major programs of record in the past. A notable one is the Air Force’s Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, which began as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program.
“What has changed is that the transition mechanism provided in 10 USC 2371b (h), added by the 2016 NDAA, provides a greatly simplified way of transitioning the contracting. The follow-on production effort after a successful prototype OT can be executed as a production OT or awarded as a non-competitive procurement contract,” he said in an email.
Mazzara and George’s PowerPoint presentation said the process is going from an “idea” to contract award in 15 months, but the requirements for robotic mules go back at least to 2001 when the now canceled Future Combat Systems was conceived. An autonomous multifunctional utility logistics and equipment vehicle survived the FCS cancelation and was transferred to the follow-on Brigade Combat Team Modernization program, but that effort was eventually scrapped as well.
Since then, development of robotic mules continued, with four of the vehicles reaching Afghanistan in 2012 for a battlefield assessment. The Lockheed Martin-built squad mission support system was deployed there for about five months.
When the Army put out a call for robotic mules to take part in a vendor solution assessment in September and October, seven robot manufacturers were able to bring technically mature, off-the-shelf robotic mules. AM General, Roboteam North America and QinetiQ North America were the three that didn’t make the cut.