ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Robotic Vehicle Program Will Test Army’s Acquisition Agility
Photo: General Dynamics Land Systems
The Army’s squad multi-purpose equipment transport program is about to enter a new phase, and will soon test the service’s ability to rapidly acquire new platforms.
The aim of the SMET project is to field robotic vehicles that can carry dismounted soldiers’ gear and lighten their load. Following testing of industry offerings at Fort Benning, Georgia, last fall, the Army downselected to four vendors: General Dynamics Land Systems, HDT Global; Howe and Howe Technologies; and a Polaris-ARA-Neya Systems team.
Once Congress passes a final defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 — which was expected to happen before the end of March — the Army planned to award contracts for each vendor to build 20 prototypes.
The platforms will then be put through their paces by soldiers over the next year or so at Fort Drum, New York, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Maj. Gen. John George, director for force development, Army G-8, told reporters at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
The service intends to use “other transaction authority” provided by Congress to move from prototyping to a Milestone C decision and a downselect to one vendor in about 15 months, he said. “That is significantly faster than we have been able to do previous efforts.”
Frustrated by the slow pace of Pentagon procurement, lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at cutting through bureaucratic red tape.
Provisions in the last three defense authorization bills enable the Army “to do these kinds of prototype competitions using flexible authorities like other transaction authority agreements, and then potentially go straight to follow-on production without further competition,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This looks like an interesting case study in how a military service can use those authorities to significantly expedite an acquisition process,” he said of the SMET program.
The Army wants to buy as many as 5,700 robotic mules for brigade combat teams depending on their price tag and funding availability, George said. Service officials want the vehicles to be able to haul 1,000 pounds of equipment, travel 60 miles off-road in 72 hours or less, generate 3 kilowatts of power stationary and 1 kilowatt moving, and cost about $100,000 or less.
A typical program of this kind would take upwards of 10 years, George noted, but the Army needs to go faster. “If we don’t change the way we acquire and field equipment to our formations, we will be fielding obsolete equipment.”
A ground vehicle program is a logical place for the Defense Department to use its new acquisition authorities, Hunter said. The systems are less complex than other types of platforms like fighter aircraft, he noted.
“In all likelihood there’s not going to be a significant amount of development required on these [SMET] vehicles,” he said. “The prototypes can be assembled relatively quickly by the competitors would be my expectation, and then they could be very close to what would be a real production model. … So this looks like a pretty nice application.”
Hunter noted that the recent passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 could help accelerate the program. The legislation lifted the military spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act for two years and authorized $700 billion and $716 billion in topline funding for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, respectively.
However, the spending caps are slated to go back into effect in 2020.
The Army is “moving out aggressively to buy new [SMET] vehicles and doing it in a very rapid timeframe, at least according to their plan,” Hunter said. “What it suggests to me is that the Army understands that the increased modernization funding that it looks like they’re going to get in FY 2018 and FY 2019 … could prove to be a fleeting window of opportunity, and they intend to capitalize on it. And I think that’s smart.”
Meanwhile, contractors that survived the latest downselect are touting the capabilities of their offerings and chomping at the bit to move into the prototyping phase.
Polaris recently unveiled its new MRZR-X.
“The MRZR-X is an evolutionary vehicle with revolutionary capabilities,” John Olson, vice president and general manager of Polaris Government and Defense told National Defense.
It has approximately 90 percent commonality with other platforms in the company’s MRZR family of vehicles. However, it is equipped with autonomous systems that differentiate it. The Polaris team’s offering for SMET is the only optionally manned vehicle of the four remaining competitors, he noted.
“Not only do you have the whole capability to operate this vehicle just like a normal, traditional operator-driven vehicle, but we have multiple levels of autonomy,” he said. That includes the capability for remote control tele-operation and “full autonomy” that enables it to be self-driving, he said.
Photo credits: HDT GLobal, Howe and Howe, General Dynamics Land Systems, Polaris
Matt Fordham, associate division manager for unmanned systems and security products at ARA, noted that there are many technical challenges to off-road robotics for military platforms that civilian self-driving cars don’t face.
“We don’t have Google Maps that show the best route,” he said in an email. Unmapped obstacles like boulders, trees, holes and massive terrain changes have to be solved by the system, he noted.
However, advances in machine learning algorithms, video processing and field-programmable gate array technologies have enabled the autonomous operating capabilities that the military is looking for, he added.
Olson said the Polaris team would have no trouble producing and manufacturing thousands of robotic mules for the SMET program. The company, which has a large commercial customer base, builds 350,000 to 500,000 vehicles every year and has 17 manufacturing plants, he noted.
“We welcome that demand and we have the capability to effectively deliver on that aggressive timeline for the Army,” he said.
“SMET is very important not only to Polaris but we believe it’s an important program for the Army and our nation,” he added. “It’s pivotal in the sense that it uses a modern contracting and acquisition approach to fill current and evolving needs on the battlefield.”
General Dynamics Land Systems is offering its multi-utility tactical transport system, or MUTT. It can provide dismounted troops with a self-mobile trailer and expeditionary power that is organic to the small unit, said Dan Rodgers, a robotics program manager for the company.
The need for the technology has become more acute with the digital trend in soldier-borne equipment and the introduction of manned-unmanned teaming to include the use of small, portable drones and ground robots, he noted in an email.
Rodgers emphasized MUTT’s modularity. Additional payloads can be integrated to provide new capabilities such as: extended range communications; electronic warfare protection; counter-UAS, counter-improvised explosive devices, and counter-rockets, artillery and mortars systems; obscuration; and remote weapons, he said.
“MUTT actually enables … warfighting effectiveness far beyond the original purpose of lighten-the-load and expeditionary power” solutions, he said.
The company would not have a problem churning out 5,700 vehicles, he said. “We welcome those production quantities.”
Large defense primes aren’t the only type of company vying for the SMET production contract. Howe and Howe Technologies, a Waterboro, Maine-based vehicle developer, is among the four vendors. The company is offering its RS2-H1.
Co-founder and CEO Geoff Howe said he expects the performance of the vehicles, not the size of their developer, to determine the winner of the competition.
“The soldier does not care if it’s a $50 billion company that provided it or if it’s a multi-million dollar company that provided it” as long as it is capable and reliable, he told National Defense. “We think we have the best robot.”
Howe noted that the RS2-H1 is a tracked vehicle.
“What the track does is it gives you much greater mobility when it comes to off-road terrain,” he said. It is less likely than a wheeled vehicle to become stuck on obstacles such as fallen trees, and it requires fewer electric motors and drives, thereby increasing its reliability and cost-effectiveness, he asserted.
Howe emphasized the vehicle’s ruggedness as a key selling point.
“A lot of the other companies [in the defense sector] build great robots,” he said. “They do this, that and the other. They’ll cook you coffee, they’ll do these crazy things.” But if they are too complex and they break, soldiers won’t want to use them, he noted.
Offering a system “that’s simple, that’s robust, that can provide them the uses that they want at an inexpensive price is really why I think … we got downselected,” he said.
Howe and Howe Technologies doesn’t have nearly as much manufacturing capacity as some of the larger primes, he acknowledged. If the company wins the competition, it would look to partner with a larger defense company or commercial manufacturer to produce the vehicles.
HDT Global, a Solon, Ohio-based firm, is offering its Hunter WOLF. The 6-wheeled robotic truck can carry 1,000 pounds of gear for more than 100 miles with internal fuel, climb 70 percent grades, and has a 20-kilowatt onboard generator with 3 kilowatt power offload capability, according to the company.
As of press time, HDT Global had not made anyone available for comment for this story.
The military ground vehicle market took a major downturn following the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the SMET program is a major opportunity for vendors. “Obviously 5,700 vehicles is the kind of order they would totally welcome, so that’s definitely an interesting piece of business for them,” Hunter said.
If one of the smaller competitors won the full-production contract, that could have major implications for the industry.
“They would probably become a pretty attractive takeover target for some of the traditional vehicle companies,” Hunter said. “There would be a whole range of opportunities that would potentially come into play.”
— Additional reporting by Stew Magnuson