Lockheed Martin has recently finalized a contract with the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force to deploy four of its prototype Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) autonomous robotic vehicles into Afghanistan to explore ways that the platforms could ease the logistics burdens of dismounted combat forces. The program, known as “Project Workhorse,” has been managed through the Robotics Technology Consortium on behalf of the U.S. Army.
As described by its industry developers, “Combining perception with extraordinary mobility allows [SMSS] vehicles to follow the warfighter across most terrain, guaranteeing the payload the robotic system is carrying will be available whenever and wherever the warfighter needs it. Few other robotic systems allow for autonomy dependable enough for a vehicle to follow someone without the use of location-disclosing beacons. The vehicle can also operate by remote control, tele-operation or by manual control.”
According to Don Nimblett, business development manager for unmanned systems at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, the six-wheeled squad-sized SMSS prototype platforms have previously been used in a number of domestic military assessments, including the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment, Spiral E (2008), Military Utility Assessment, Fort Benning (2009), Limited User Test – Portable Power, Ft. Riley (2010), and Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment, Spiral G (2011).
“The Army has tested the systems’ capabilities in three domestic user assessments previously so an in theater assessment is kind of the obvious next step in the process of informing the requirements for the Army’s future squad-sized unmanned ground vehicle development,” he said.
Able to operate on either diesel or JP-8 fuels, the SMSS is developed from a heavily modified commercial all terrain vehicle chassis capable of carrying 1200 pounds of payload and traveling 125 miles before refueling. In addition to its ability to carry some of the load assigned to dismounted infantry, the prototype SMSS platforms heading to Afghanistan will also be equipped with a battery charger already in U.S. Army inventories that is capable of simultaneously charging 14 batteries.
“We thought that was a good selection,” Nimblett noted. “If down the road they decide they want another type that’s in the inventory we certainly can accommodate that. That’s not a problem. In fact, one of the experiments we participated in last year was for the Program Manager for Soldier Warrior. They did an experiment with a Stryker company that had the Nett Warrior suite – the electronic suite that they put on soldiers that gives them advanced capabilities to see and communicate. The only problem with that system is that it’s heavily battery intensive. So we were brought in and as part of an experiment they gave us six battery chargers that we mounted on the vehicle. And during the experiment we were able to charge simultaneously 56 of their batteries, carry 56 charge batteries, and we also had enough cargo space left for the soldiers to put their rucksacks, ammunition, water, etc.”
Other design changes from earlier prototype configurations range from simplification of the autonomous sensor suite to suspension/wheel redesign that will allow the SMSS to be towed behind manned vehicles when not in use.
Nimblett cautioned that the contractor-developed prototype systems that will be deployed still rely on commercial radio and GPS technologies with no access to more precise military GPS location information of geo-registered map data.
“We could do that if we were a military program but right now we are not, so we don’t have availability to that,” he explained. “The point of all that [is that] without good GPS and without a geo-registered digital map the vehicle could be several meters off of where it really thinks it is and quite literally could go off the side of a cliff and not even know it until it hit the ground.”
Lockheed Martin developers have minimized this risk on the latest prototypes through an application where operators “drop” a course route data point every 10-15 meters, allowing the SMSS to retrace its route.
“The government evaluators – the people who have sponsored this – have agreed that they are going to manage the expectations of the unit that is going to receive the vehicle so that they understand that they need to think about where they are going to take the vehicle and on what mission,” Nimblett added. “Now, this could be a tactic technique and procedure but in previous conversations with the Army their thoughts are ‘Well, if the vehicle can’t go right with us then we’ll find an alternative route that we can send it on and it can meet up with us.’ That is one tactic they have talked about using. Now, obviously they are going to have to think about how they do that because if the vehicle trundles off by itself through ‘bad guy country’ it may become clock parts for tomorrow. But that’s just a tactic they are going to have to deal with and work with. And that’s part of the experiment – to figure out how they can use the system and what the demands are for the soldiers who are using the system.”