ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Marine Corps Eyeing Modular, Interoperable Robotic Systems
Photo: Marine Corps Warfighting Lab
The Marine Corps is investing and experimenting with new ground robotic technology that service officials believe will help keep troops out of danger while enhancing their situational awareness.
At the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, officials are grappling with an evolving threat environment that requires the development of cutting-edge capabilities to keep pace with adversaries, said Jeff Tomczak, the lab’s deputy director for science and technology.
One area of focus is the infantry squad. The service wants to give Marines robotic systems that enhance their capabilities on the ground.
“I see things changing so rapidly in the robotics world,” Tomczak said during an interview. “There are requirements that are being built that are going to expand the use of robotics systems across the whole spectrum of robotic systems — air, ground, surface.”
However, the service doesn’t want to pursue technology that will become a liability for Marines, he noted.
“You want a battle buddy and you want something that is as good or better than what you have in regard to either a person next to you or a piece of equipment next to you,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is just add another tool in the tool kit that they don’t use.”
The lab plans to invest in fully autonomous systems, he noted.
“There’s more goodness than badness with autonomy,” Tomczak said. “Some people will say, ‘Hey, you can’t go everywhere with … a fully autonomous system.’ We know that.
We know you can’t. But we are going to continue to expand the envelope on where we can go and what we can do.”
The Marine Corps doesn’t have plans to remove humans from the loop, Tomczak noted. But with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning “we’re starting to see where the cognitive burden on the squad member is starting to go down because it’s less about driving the system … [and it’s more] about employing an asset, a warfighting, enabling asset” at the right time and place, he said.
When it comes to ground robots, modularity is important, Tomczak said. The warfighting lab is currently working on a ground system known as the expeditionary modular autonomous vehicle, or EMAV. The tracked platform has a flat top that can carry more than 7,000 pounds. The service can outfit it with different types of sensors, communications equipment or weapons, he said. It is also able to transport causalities.
Historically, when a member of a squad is injured it could take upwards of two to four Marines to carry that one individual back to safety, he noted. However, with the EMAV, the system can autonomously transport a wounded Marine to a battalion aid station.
The service currently has two EMAVS. It expects to acquire two more in the near future, and could potentially obtain 10 additional systems down the road, he added.
The Marine Corps recently tested the platforms during a limited operational assessment focused on urban warfare at a military training facility in Muscatatuck, Indiana.
“We had a company of Marines up there that were using two of the systems … in its modular capacity to move supplies [and] move gear,” Tomczak said. The system was also outfitted with sensors and weapons, he added.
The warfighting lab plans to use four EMAVs during another urban environment experiment in August at the Muscatatuck facility, Tomczak said.
“It has everything that we need for our experimentation,” he said. “Because it’s so far out in the country, we can test a lot of different things that we’re not typically allowed to … assess here on base at Quantico or here in close proximity to D.C. or other cities and homes.”
The service plans to use the EMAVs in congested, complex terrain, he said. The platforms will enter buildings that will require the systems to navigate around debris that may be blocking their path.
“[We will be] looking at buildings, roads, … underground subways and obviously underground tunnels,” he said. “When you go down into those tunnels, … you find yourself stepping over either old steam pipes or steam pipes that are active that have damage to them and are blowing steam out, creating … [a] hot and humid environment.”
In a subterranean environment, a ground system may only be able to go so far because of the terrain or because of degraded communications, Tomczak said. To address the issue, the service plans to employ a ground system that is connected to an unmanned aerial vehicle via a tether. That will allow for the tether to act like a line on a fishing reel that continues to be released as the UAV goes further into the tunnel, he noted.
Such technology is currently at a low readiness level, he said. “But we know we could do these things,” he added.
The Marine Corps is also interested in interoperability for unmanned ground vehicles, Tomczak said. The warfighting lab — working alongside the Army — has developed a tactical robotic controller, or TRC, that allows an operator to employ multiple robots with one system.
“We have recognized for a good many years that it’s necessary” to have that capability, he said. Otherwise, “your squad leader is literally going to have … 10 different controllers in his pocket for each type of system out there.”
While the current version of the TRC is unlikely to become an official program of record, it will inform future efforts, he noted. Additionally, the Marine Corps and Army are creating a set of standards that will require industry to develop robots that can be controlled by the TRC, he said.
There is great utility in collaborating on efforts with other Defense Department organizations, Tomczak said.
“We can’t do everything” within the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, he said. “We work with some of the big elephants in the S&T arena often and as much as possible.”
For example, MCWL is closely following developments with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Squad X program, Tomczak said. The effort, which has been in the works for years, is meant to provide dismounted troops with better situational awareness using a slew of robotic systems that can sense their environment and relay information back to soldiers and Marines.
“We’ve been tracking Squad X for many years,” he said. “We’ve had operational units that have played a role in Squad X and are helping to develop the capabilities.”
As the technology matures within the program, the lab can cherry pick certain systems and transition them into Marine Corps experiments, he noted. However, that has not happened yet, he added.
The Marine Corps is also investing in robots for its explosive ordnance disposal community. Last year, the service inked a $10 million deal for a fleet of “backpackable” small unmanned ground vehicles known as the ultra-light robot. That award follows two previous contracts worth more than $24 million.
The platforms — also known as FirstLook systems — are built by FLIR Unmanned Ground Systems, which recently changed its name from Endeavor Robotics after it was acquired by FLIR Systems.
The ultra-light robots were purchased using a Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command explosive ordnance disposal urgent universal needs statement. The systems allow Marines to extend their situational awareness, said Ronald L. Diefenbach, project officer for the EOD unmanned ground vehicles team at Marine Corps Systems Command’s program manager engineer systems division.
“Let’s say we have some EOD operators out there and they need to look over a wall,” he said. “They don’t want to expose themselves. They can simply take this robot, throw it over that wall, … throw it on top of a roof … and they can get eyes on where they’re going.”
The service plans to purchase 122 systems. Fielding was slated to begin in March and be completed by April, he said.
Marines have previously experimented with the ultra-light robots and taken advantage of being able to throw the systems whenever they needed to collect reconnaissance on a certain area, he said.
The service is also investing in the EOD mini-robot, which is also built by FLIR, Diefenbach said.
“It is going to be our most numerous robot that we’re going to have in the operating forces very shortly,” he said. The service has fielded a number of the systems since 2009.
The Marine Corps made the decision to invest in even more mini-robots after it pulled out of the Navy’s advance explosive ordnance disposal robotic system program.
“The Marine Corps withdrew from participating in that program and put the money into buying upgrades and new systems for the EOD mini-robot program,” he said.
The service plans to purchase 142 new EOD mini-robots and upgrade 122 for a total of 264 platforms, Diefenbach noted.
The system has been upgraded with improved communications, a common controller and a meshing capability that allows it to connect with other systems such as the ultra-light robots, he said. That will allow the platforms to be used in conjunction to extend the range of both systems.
If “we need to operate in an underground environment … you can start pushing the EOD mini-robot in there,” Diefenbach said. “Once we lose contact with that, we can use the
FirstLook robot to mesh with the EOD mini-robot because you’re using the same radio system and they can push in and give us extended range.”
That is particularly beneficial for explosive ordnance disposal technicians because it gives them more distance in case of an explosion, he said.
There have been technical issues with the EOD mini-robot, Diefenbach said. Those include problems with the laptop control unit that causes screen distortions, as well as issues with the system’s inertial drive capability which allows a user to move the robot by moving a tablet left, right, forward or backward.
Tom Frost, FLIR Unmanned Ground Systems’ vice president and general manager, said the company has already found fixes for both issues as the robots have gone into new equipment testing.
“In that testing we did identify one way to improve the video and we’re implementing that now,” he said. “We also identified a way to improve our inertial drive capability so we’re implementing that fix as well.”
FLIR is currently rolling out those fixes, he added.