ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Army Preparing to Field New Unmanned Ground Systems
The Army’s push to upgrade its ground robotics fleet is coming to fruition, according to the service.
Over the next 18 months, the Army plans to field four major platforms, Bryan McVeigh, project manager for force projection at the program executive office for combat support and combat service support, noted in an interview with National Defense.
The common robotic system-individual (CRS(I)), man transportable robotic system increment 2 and the common robotic system-heavy, will make up a new family of explosive ordnance disposal robots with the same interoperability profile. Another system, the squad multipurpose equipment transport, is designed to haul equipment for dismounted soldiers.
The service has been utilizing other transaction authority agreements for its robotics initiatives to allow for prototype competitions before awarding production contracts, McVeigh said. The expanded use of OTAs was authorized in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, and are a way to cut through bureaucratic red tape.
Additionally, the Army is examining its strategy for purchasing small robots, he said. Although the chassis of robotic systems are sustainable for about five to 10 years, a technology refresh is required about every five years. Because of this, the service is considering whether it should purchase fewer systems more often, he noted.
QinetiQ North America won a production contract for the common robotic system-individual, or CRS(I), in March. The production award was valued up to $152 million, according to a news release.
QinetiQ competed against FLIR Systems Inc., which was known as Endeavor Robotics at the time. Endeavor was acquired by FLIR in March.
Last year, QinetiQ and Endeavor were awarded engineering, manufacturing and development contracts for CRS(I). The Army downselected to one vendor after a competitive run-off test at Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland in October. The system is scheduled to be fielded by the second quarter of fiscal year 2020, McVeigh said.
Described by the service as a “remotely operated, highly mobile, unmanned ground vehicle that is light enough for a dismounted soldier to carry in a backpack,” the CRS(I) weighs less than 25 pounds and is the service’s smallest upcoming ground robot.
Dan Deguire, vice president of land systems at QinetiQ North America, said the company’s platform — which is known as the squad packable utility robot (SPUR) — is “a clean sheet of paper design to address current user needs and future user needs.”
The program also encompasses a universal controller to operate unmanned ground and air systems. The device has an open architecture so it can take on additional capabilities, the contract award announcement stated.
QinetiQ’s controller comes in multiple versions and different sizes, Deguire said.
“It is a modular, scalable architecture that we’re implementing to basically drive commonality,” he said. The controllers are also available in single or dual screen, he noted.
Endeavor filed a complaint against QinetiQ in January. The complaint alleged that QinetiQ’s CRS(I) product infringed upon Endeavor patents that cover robotic stair-climbing techniques.
The lawsuit is still in preliminary stages, Sean Bielat, head of unmanned ground systems at FLIR, said. Deguire declined to comment specifically on the complaint, noting that QinetiQ “thoroughly investigates every product we launch to make sure we’re not doing anything that is in violation of anyone.” McVeigh said the lawsuit is not expected to affect the timeline of the program.
Choosing a system based on a downselect process with commercial off-the-shelf items allowed the Army to save about 50 percent more money than it originally anticipated for the effort, McVeigh noted.
“We’ve gone out and bought specifically something off the shelf this time,” he said. “This time we actually did head-to-head competition. We’re just seeing the value of that.”
Meanwhile, the man transportable robotic system increment 2, or MTRS Inc II, is in production and is scheduled to be fielded by September or early October, he said. The platform fulfills the service’s medium size requirement for the Army’s set of EOD robots.
The $158.5 million contract was awarded in September 2017 to FLIR, which competed its Centaur unmanned ground vehicle. The company said the Centaur’s arm provides “5 degrees of freedom,” which allows it to reach into tight spots.
The competition for the common robotic system-heavy (CRS(H)), which fulfills the service’s requirement for a large EOD robot, is still underway. The Army’s acquisition objective for the system is about 70 platforms, McVeigh noted. It is scheduled for fielding in the second quarter of fiscal year 2020.
The Army awarded competitive prototyping contracts to three vendors and a “fly-off” was completed in October at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, McVeigh said.
Most of the Army’s robotics fly-offs are broken down into two phases, he said. The first examines the system’s operational utility to see if companies really have something that can be used rather than something that looks good only on a PowerPoint slide. The second phase involves examining the robots’ ability to perform actions such as traversing over rough terrain and climbing up stairs.
“We measure and test individual attributes of each of the platforms,” he said.
The second fly-off involves putting the systems through real-world scenarios with soldiers, he noted.
“The contractor is nowhere near the piece of equipment and the soldiers are utilizing it and they’re giving us feedback on what are the attributes they liked, what didn’t they like and what’s their overall assessment of the platform,” McVeigh said.
The second competition for CRS(H) is scheduled to be completed by June. After choosing a finalist, the service will go straight into a production contract, he said. The downselect is scheduled for August.
FLIR, Harris Corp. and QinetiQ were chosen to compete in the second phase of the competition.
FLIR is competing the Kobra, a “highly capable, highly robust platform” that weighs 500 pounds, has an 11-foot reach and can move up to seven miles per hour, Bielat said.
It is possible to fit multiple Kobras in the back of a commercial sport utility vehicle and the system has a high strength-to-weight ratio, he noted.
“It’s light enough that if it does need to be man-transported, four people can pick it up and carry it,” he said. “But it has just as much lift capacity and payload capacity as any of the competitors.”
The system is already fielded with multiple foreign militaries, he said. Additionally, the Kobra has been in consistent use in Fukushima, Japan, to help clean up after effects of the 2011 nuclear disaster, he noted.
Harris is competing its T7 multi-mission robot. The system weighs 710 pounds, has a maximum speed of 4 mph and is outfitted with cameras in the front and back of the platform, according to the company.
Paul Bosscher, Harris’ chief engineer for robotic systems, said the T7 has a pistol grip that makes it easier for users to control the robot.
“You’ll hold that pistol grip and you’ll just move that the way you would move your hand if the [robot] was your hand,” he said.
Its modular design allows the service to make changes to the system by putting on different payloads, he noted.
“I can pull the robot arm off, I can put another payload on and ... I’ve got something that can support moving equipment around the base, or doing a patrol, or whatever else they can envision,” he said.
The T7 is already in use by the U.K. Ministry of Defence, which began receiving the robots at the end of 2018 through its Project STARTER program. The contract for the program is worth up to $70 million, and initial operational capability is projected for fall 2019.
QinetiQ is competing the Badger, which was developed with a partner organization. Deguire declinined to name the partner. The system is partially a clean-sheet design and weighs under 700 pounds, he said.
“It has a very good, high-performing manipulator and it has extremely good mobility,” he said. “[The] weight — which is well within the budget of the program — accommodates that extra capability.”
QinetiQ is scheduled to deliver the systems to the Army soon for the next stage of the competition, he noted.
McVeigh said the service is also in the process of examining options for the squad multipurpose equipment transport robot. In 2017, the Army downselected to four vendors, which included General Dynamics Land Systems, HDT Global, Howe and Howe Technologies, and a Polaris-ARA-Neya Systems team. Two brigades — one in the 10th
Mountain Division and one in the 101st Airborne Division — each received 32 systems, he noted.
The Army has been receiving feedback on ways the soldiers are employing them, McVeigh said.
“The thing that’s neat about it is some of the systems do great doing one type of mission,” he noted. “We’re getting a lot of feedback on each of their different capabilities.”
If Army leadership approves moving ahead with the program based on the operational technology demonstration, a production contract is slated for August or September, he said.