Squad mission support systems in Afghanistan and reviewing all war robots and considering future warbots

1. This is a follow up on the Lockheed Martin’s (LM) Squad Mission Support System (SMSS). The system, which turns a six-wheeled amphibious ATV into a robotic packhorse and charging station, has been subjected to a variety of simulated warzone environments in both remote controlled and fully autonomous modes”

Defensetech.org – Army is sent four of the Lockheed’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) robot jeeps to Afghanistan where they’ll haul supplies for troops.

The 11-foot long trucks can carry a half a ton of supplies for up to 125 miles after being delivered to the field in a CH-47 or CH-53 helo.

2. DARPA is developing a highly mobile, semi-autonomous legged robot, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), to integrate with a squad of Marines or Soldiers.

The LS3 program will design and develop prototypes capable of carrying 400 lbs of payload for 20 miles in 24 hours, negotiating terrain at endurance levels expected of typical squad maneuvers.

3. Executives at the three major suppliers of military robots — iRobot, QinetiQ North America and Remotec — believe that there are still opportunities out there despite the anticipated drawdown, a lack of permanent programs and a Defense Department budget outlook that many have called “grim.”

“There continues to be worldwide demand for this capability,” said Ed Godere, senior vice president for unmanned systems at QinetiQ. “As we see things winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of IEDs as the weapon of choice by insurgents around the world is becoming more prevalent.”

The Navy, the executive agent in charge of developing and procuring bomb disposal robots for all four services, prior to the Iraq War had fielded one large EOD robot: the remote ordnance neutralization system or RONS, which was developed in the 1990s by Remotec, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. These are 700-pound-plus machines that were mostly envisioned for base security and needed to be towed by a vehicle. The Navy had acquired 270 of them, and upgrades were made during the Iraq war. Their size made them ideal for removing large objects such as artillery shells from the field.

One of the most important developments of the Iraq war was that ground robots eventually proved themselves to be “robust pieces of military equipment with reliability,” he said. That wasn’t the case at the outset. But as the following iterations made their way into the field, they became more durable. Manufacturers also made improvements to controllers, communications links, chassis and other facets.

Another watershed moment came when the infantry adapted them for reconnaissance missions, Dyer said. Soldiers want robots to look around the corners of buildings or inside them before they stick out their heads. As these EOD robots were being fielded, the now defunct Army modernization program, the Future Combat Systems, was working on a ground recon robot. It is one of the few technologies that survived that program’s cancellation, Dyer said.

So-called robotic mules are one such need. The Army is currently fielding unmanned logistics vehicles that can help dismounted troops traveling in Afghanistan’s rough terrain.

A Lockheed Martin-built squad mission support system, a six-wheeled semi-autonomous vehicle weighing 3,800 pounds, has been sent to the field to help troops haul loads in that nation. Other manufacturers such as John Deere, Remotec and QinetiQ are offering logistics robots.

Whether these make the transition to programs of record once that conflict wraps up remains to be seen.

The Iraq War also marked a first when a M249 light machine gun was married to a Talon. In 2007, the Army — responding to urgent requests from battlefield commanders — sent a handful of the armed robots to Iraq. The Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center developed the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, or SWORDS. Despite the fanfare surrounding this historic event, SWORDS’ 15-minutes of fame came to an end quickly. Senior military leaders were nervous about sending armed robots into war zones, even though a human operator was always in the decision-making loop of when to fire or not fire. It was reported that they were used sparingly in fixed positions, and did not shoot on the move as envisioned.

The Marines so far have shown the most interest in moving armed ground robot programs forward, according to executives. But there are still tactics, techniques and procedures to work out, and perhaps the biggest hurdle of all: cultural acceptance.

Remotec is building the chassis for the Navy’s next-generation bomb disposal robot program, the advanced EOD robot system.

The family of robots is broken into three increments. Increment one, a backpackable robot, will be fielded beginning in 2014. It will replace the iRobot 310 small unmanned ground vehicle. Increment two, the manual transportable robot intended to replace the iRobot MK 1 PackBot and QinetiQ MK 2 Talon, will start deliveries in 2017. Increment three, the largest robot, will replace the 700-pound RONS robots.

“There are countless other security and civilian roles for robots,” Godere said.

QinetiQ has outfitted Bobcat bulldozers with robotic kits for route clearance missions in Afghanistan. That has other applications as well.

“You can start to see the day where a Bobcat could be used to cut a fire break in a forest fire,” he said.

But expanding into the first responder market is tough-going, as the market leader Remotec can attest. Unlike with the military, which buys in large quantities, robots must be sold to local and state first responders one jurisdiction at a time. The agencies mostly rely on federal grants, which can take up to two years to procure.

Dyer warned that U.S. companies are not the only player in the military and first responder robotics world. South Korea, Israel, Singapore, and China are just some of the nations investing heavily in the technology.

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