SPRINGFIELD, Va. --- Once unmanned ground combat vehicles are developed and deployed en masse, the battlefield area controlled by a brigade combat team will increase 10-fold, predicted Don Sando.
Sando, the deputy to the commanding general at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Georgia, spoke Tuesday during a National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored conference on ground robotics. He also said that in addition to providing greater lethality, these robots will save lives and will dramatically improve sustainment through autonomous re-supply.
Soldiers working in explosive ordnance disposal have already benefitted from ground robots, namely in lives saved, Sando said. Robots are expected to proliferate throughout the rest of the Army, where they will assist Soldiers with hauling equipment and providing situational awareness.
While unmanned aerial systems have proliferated in recent years, deployment of unmanned ground combat vehicles has lagged, Sando said. One reason for that is the complexity of designing systems to operate on the ground. While airspace is relatively uncluttered, ground terrain is more difficult to negotiate, which makes designing unmanned ground systems is more of a challenge.
However, that is about to change as technology to cover the ground has matured, he said.
In January, the Maneuver CoE launched its Army Robotic and Autonomous System Strategy Execution Plan, he said.
The plan created a Robotic Center of Innovation, nicknamed Robot City, at Fort Benning, where maneuver battle lab experimentations are now being conducted.
The plan also established the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Project Office for Maneuver of Robotic Autonomous Systems, he said. Last week, the name of that unit was changed to TRADOC Capability Manager for Robotics and Autonomous Systems.
Sando said one reason for the name change is that, broadly speaking, robots can be more than just UASs or UGSs.
For example, there are systems being developed to help Soldiers better identify targets on the battlefield. These are artificial intelligence and machine learning systems that in effect are robotic, he said.
So when Soldiers are being shot at, these software robotic systems will come to their aid, he said. That's a much broader use than the term "maneuver," so that's why the word was removed.
Centralizing the robotic effort at Fort Benning is meant to channel creativity and innovation between Soldiers, academia and industry, he said.
This effort will involve a lot of prototyping and experimentation, he added.
"We want prototypes in the hands of Soldiers and Marines for several months, not days," he said. "If they don't want to give it back, it worked. If they say they lost it, that's fine too, because it means it didn't work."
ON THE HORIZON
Sando said the first robotics industry day will most likely take place in June. It will be a chance to partner with industry and academia to discover what challenges there are and what opportunities there are to pursue.
Last week at the Joint Multinational Training Command in Germany, the Army held a "Robotic Complex Breach Concept Demonstration." The event was part of the Joint Warfighter Assessment 18.1, he said, and involved a large variety of UAS and UGS vehicles doing a complex breaching movement alongside Soldiers of the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team.
Another such demonstration will take place this fall at Fort Benning and then another one next year in Germany, he said.
Regarding new systems, the list of possible vendors for the Squad Multi-purpose Equipment Transport system, or SMET, was down-selected to just four. Included in that list are General Dynamics Land Systems, HDT Global, Howe and Howe Technologies and Polaris-ARA-Neya Systems, he said.
SMET is a semi-autonomous vehicle for carrying Soldiers' supplies over rough terrain, which a Brigade Combat Team would typically negotiate. The four variants will be field-tested, possibly beginning next year at Fort Drum, New York and Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
In another effort, two engineering and manufacturing development contracts have been awarded to Endeavor Robotics and QinetiQ North America for the next phase of the Common Robotic System (Individual) program, he said. With this award, the Army will begin a competition expected to last approximately 10 months to inform which contractor will be selected for the low rate initial production phase award.
The CRS(I) is the Army's small-sized, 25 pound ground robot, designed to be transported by backpack and remotely operated, giving Soldiers the ability to perform various missions such as EOD, at a safe standoff distance from potentially hazardous threats.
The CRS(I) is the second of three unmanned robotic programs intended to formalize the Army's ground robotic portfolio into discrete programs of record. CRS(I) will join the medium-sized Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II, which weighs 150 pounds, which was awarded last fall to Endeavor Robotics, and the Common Robotic System -- Heavy, which weighs 700 pounds.
At an average weight of just 25 pounds, CRS(I) is the smallest of the three programs.
Jose Gonzalez, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Tactical Warfare Systems, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said robots will inundate the battlefield very soon.
It's imperative that this happens "because we're losing lives every day we don't implement these systems," he said.
Congress and the administration are on board with the push to bring robots to the battlefield, he added. They've provided the necessary funding and authorities. In turn, the Department of Defense is pushing its own authorities down to each of the services to empower them to get moving on their own initiatives, using nontraditional means of acquisition such as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental and Other Transactional Authorities.