JUST IN: Army Shooting to Experiment with Robots in Platoons by ‘Early 2025’

By Laura Heckmann

Army photo

The Army of the future includes robots, and Army Futures Command is aiming to place two robotic platoon prototypes in the hands of soldiers for experimentation by early 2025, its commander said.

The role robots will play in the Army’s modernization plans are diverse, but the key to success will be a balance between humans and machines, Gen. James Rainey, commanding general of Army Futures Command, told reporters during a media roundtable Dec. 13.

“So, the big idea is that the army of the future is going to be wholly combined between machines optimized to do what machines do and humans optimized to do what humans do,” he said. “But that's a big giant elephant.”

To address the giant, Rainey said he suggested building two robotic platoons, or platoons that integrate machines with humans — one for light infantry and one for armored forces.

“And we have them,” he said. “They're not a PowerPoint anymore. We skipped the whole PowerPoint thing and just started.”

One platoon is at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, with another at the National Training Center, he said. While he said they are “not perfect … we’re going to do a demonstration of that.” He also said he believes “a little bit of money” is coming “to help with that, and I think you will see the first prototype platoons showing up in real Army units for them to experiment with sometime — I’m going to under promise, over deliver — early 2025. If I had my way, it would be late [2024].”

Following the first two platoons, Rainey said to look for the next two in combat training centers, “and there’ll be a version behind that in the lab. … So, I think we're going to be able to iterate and … we'll provide them as fast as we can fund them.”

Rainey said the Army is also focused on improving rapid acquisition. The service’s tendency has been to spend years buying something and then holding onto it for 20 years, which makes sense with a tank, “but with technology, that's not the healthy approach. So think big, start small, go fast,” he said.

The Army plans to integrate ground robots with light and heavy formations conducting offensive operations into its 2024 Project Convergence exercise, Gen. Ross Coffman, deputy commanding general of Army Futures Command, said.

“And so what you'll see at Fort Irwin during Capstone Four is the first step on that counteraction of what we anticipate our adversaries will come to the battlefield with,” he said. “And that will include everything from lethal effects, non-lethal effects, interoperability with humans on the ground in the form of infantry and M1 tanks that have formed a machine and human interactive platoon that will then exponentially increase our capabilities.”

A few ways robots could enhance platoons are in resupply efforts and casualty evacuation, Rainey said.

“One of the things these first [versions] of robotic platoons include is using robots to resupply, so you can take some of the weight off your soldiers,” he said. “And then probably most importantly, the ability to evacuate casualties.”

For the last twenty years, if a soldier was shot in Afghanistan or Iraq, they received world-class trauma care by helicopter “almost immediately,” he said. “I don't think our future enemies are going to afford us that opportunity.”

Rainey said the hope is that enemies will abide by the law of armed conflict, but “there’s not any indication of that. So we [have] to start thinking about how are we going to evacuate four casualties on one robot with one medic with telemedicine, instead of four soldiers carrying one litter with one soldier on it?”

Rainey said robotic platoons are not intended to offload the responsibility of caring for the wounded to machines, but for “optimizing the right combination of humans and machines.”

Human medics “are awesome,” he said. “Triaging, saving somebody’s life … that soldier is going to be in that unit. … So how do you turn a medic into a paramedic, paramedic into a [physician assistant], [physician assistant] into a doctor, at echelon? And then we're going to have to evacuate casualties.”

Rainey said he personally would not be thrilled about getting on an unmanned aircraft — “younger people may be more open to that. But if I was shot and dying, and my choices were to die or get in a tube on the UAS … I’d probably have a different decision-making process.”

Relying on the younger generation to embrace the technology of the future is part of Army Futures Command’s hopeful vision, he said.

“With autonomy and technology, the younger the better. Digital natives versus digital immigrants. I'm super optimistic,” he said.


Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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