“Never get between a Marine and his robot,” a Marine commander in Iraq reportedly said when informed his unit’s remote-controlled bomb detectors and reconnaissance robots were being transferred to the Army.
Marines were among the first to be equipped with the devices early in the war in Southwest Asia, using them to look for car-bombs at checkpoints while remaining outside a potential blast zone. The small platforms also were adapted to look for explosives or insurgents in caves or suspicious buildings and have been credited with saving numerous Marine lives as a result.
Units employing robots in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to give the devices names, look upon them as valued members of the team and, according to some reports, have even held funerals for robots destroyed while performing tasks that might otherwise have killed a human warfighter. And when offered a new robot in exchange for a damaged one, “No, repair my robot” is a typical response, according to Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, a project manager in the Marine/Army Robotic Systems Joint Project Office.
“The Marine Corps in general has embraced UGVs [unmanned ground vehicles] as we look at new technologies to assist the warfighter,” he added. “MCWL [Marine Corps Warfighting Lab], in particular, has been very involved with evaluating new ideas, new TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] and understanding the relevance and uses of UGVs to support the Marines currently in combat.
“We’ve seen requests from the warfighters for additional unmanned systems and are doing our best to fill that, taking some of the systems we currently have on the battlefield and modernizing them, which is certainly an investment in our future, but also imperative for our warfighters’ capabilities in the long term. So, right now, we see the field of robotics growing, but what our senior leadership decides are priorities for scarce budget resources is up to them. We tell them what we are capable of providing to the warfighter and they determine how resources are allocated.”
Vince Goulding, director of MCWL’s Experiment Division, said autonomous systems are a major requirement now in the effort to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have become the weapon of choice for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will continue to be as future concepts evolve.
“As long as we have IEDs and mines, the field is always asking for robots to find and defuse those as part of the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] function. But we are interested in robots from a more concept-based perspective,” he said. “The lab’s mission is very simple – conduct concept-based experimentation to identify TTPs and technologies. We come up with a concept of where we want to go, then look for technologies to enable that.
“We certainly will continue looking at robotic and unmanned systems as they become more sophisticated, but our biggest frustration on those is what you hear from the purveyors and what they can actually do, which is usually separated by a very wide gulf. Since we principally do live force experimentation, we have to have things we can really assess to shape future capability and develop TTPs, so we are always interested, but we’re also skeptical. We’re not zero defect, but the world we live in does not have a whole lot of room for stupid mistakes.”
Two areas in which industry, after a number of false starts, recently provided systems that have impressed the Marines are unmanned cargo helicopters and ground carriers – a robotic replacement for the pack mule.
The first was in response to a MCWL request for proposal (RFP) for unmanned rotorcraft capable of moving a minimum total of 10,000 pounds of supplies between Main Operating Bases (MOBs) and Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) at distances up to 75 nautical miles within a 24-hour period. The goal is to significantly reduce the need to supply FOBs by ground convoys, which are favored targets for IEDs, or manned helicopters, which could be retasked to other vital missions. One proposed helicopter was grounded about a year ago, however, when officials declared it unsafe, heightening MCWL’s level of scepticism.
“From December through March , however, we did an experiment with the K-MAX [Kaman Aerospace/Lockheed Martin medium-lift helicopter] and Boeing’s A160 Hummingbird, in which they flew real unmanned helicopters that could move supplies from one place to another autonomously,” MCWL lead analyst John H. Reynolds recalled.
“We gave them a bold, limited technical assessment to fly 150 miles round trip, deliver product and return without anyone touching the controls. That would not have happened had the Lab not put its foot down and forced the issue for a helicopter to fly a mission with no pilot control.”
The K-MAX was developed as a manned commercial aircraft, then converted to operate without a pilot on board to meet military requirements. The A160 was built from the beginning as an unmanned vehicle by Frontier Systems, which was acquired by Boeing in 2004. A Boeing Phantom Works team called Advanced Unmanned Systems-Concept Exploration has continued its development under a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Capt. Amanda Mowry, the Cargo UAV project officer in MCWL’s Air Combat Element Branch, said the lack of roads and other infrastructure in Afghanistan have placed a serious burden on logistics support there, leading to an urgent needs statement in 2008 for an Immediate Cargo Unmanned Aerial System (ICUAS).
“With only one or two roads, and convoys getting hit by IEDs, aviation was getting the brunt of the work, keeping them from doing their regular jobs,” she said. “We focused the requirement at the company level for an autonomous air vehicle that could fly at 15,000 feet and hover outside of ground effect at 12,000 feet, based on the mountainous Afghan terrain.
“For the demonstration at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, engineers from NAVAIR and MCWL developed six profiles for each company to perform. Bottom line, both were able to meet every threshold in our statement of work and proved that capability is out there, at an estimated [Technology Readiness Level] TRL-7 for both. Now, MCCDC [Marine Corps Combat Development Command] and NAVAIR are working together to get something into theater in Afghanistan as soon as they can.”
On a Technology Readiness Level scale from 1 to 9, TRL-7 is a major incremental advancement, representing a prototype near or at planned operational capability.
Mowry, meanwhile, has turned her attention to follow-on efforts to be included in the Corps’ next scheduled Limited Objective Experiment (LOE) to carry “beans, bullets, and band-aids” to Marines on the move.
“The FY 12 LOE is focused on logistics, and I’ve been tasked to get some sort of logistical cargo UAV that will support ship-to-objective maneuver. But for troops on the move, it will be smaller than FOB-to-FOB employment. We will be sending out an RFP by year’s end or early 2011, looking for autonomous operations, but are not limiting it to rotary,” she said. “The technology has changed since we sent out the earlier cargo UAV RFP, so we really don’t know exactly what is out there now and don’t want to box ourselves in by designating a helicopter. But we do want it operator friendly and a little lighter than the ICUAS.
“We’re focusing on two company landing teams, so they will need the same stuff as the ICUAS companies. But we are flexible. We’re giving a poundage requirement, but this is more for MCWL’s experiment and, while it eventually will lead to saving lives, it’s not something that will be going out to the Marines on the ground right now, as was the case with the ICUAS. So we are more open to experimentation than when peoples’ lives are on the line.”
Mowry also sees the potential for a blending of weaponized UAVs and UGVs to enhance warfighter lethality on the battlefield.
“From a combined arms aspect, we do have a lethal aerial munition called Switchblade, which is a micro-UAV that can loiter. It is remotely operated by a Marine and has a 40 mm round, making it a great precision weapon for the small tactical unit. We’ve thought about using that munition with the GUSS [Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate], so you incorporate the UGV with an aerial capability. That is not yet scheduled for an LOE, but the potential is definitely there.”
In the UGV arena, a publicly popular prototype was BigDog, a four-legged walking robot built by Boston Dynamics for DARPA in 2005. While it was a successful proof of concept in many ways, it was far too noisy and not quite stable enough for real-world military use.
A less exotic approach, GUSS is a modified Polaris six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, developed by Virginia Tech as an outgrowth of the UGV with which they took third place in DARPA’s 2007 Urban Challenge to complete a 60-mile course in less than six hours, with no human intervention.
“We built it to lighten the load of a squad and to be able to follow the squad autonomously with very little input required from squad members, so no Marine would need to be heads down, playing with a joystick or watching a screen. Instead, it would move in relation to the squad, based on a beacon in one Marine’s pack,” Maj. Patrick Reynolds, head of MCWL’s Logistics Combat Element Branch and lead on GUSS, explained. “It also could provide point-to-point resupply. You don’t want it going off on its own, where you can’t see it, but it can autonomously move between locations within sight.
“With just the flip of a switch, it also can convert to a manned mode for use as a CASEVAC [casualty evacuation] platform for the squad as it maneuvers, so a wounded Marine could be stabilized and placed on the GUSS – which can carry up to two litter patients – and moved to an extraction zone. We found one Marine could move a wounded warfighter on the vehicle about one kilometer to the extraction zone within 15 minutes, rather than the 40 to 60 minutes required for a four-man carry. The significance of quick extraction time is the ‘golden hour’ – from point of injury to a stabilization facility. And it kept more Marines in the fight.”
GUSS is a proof of concept for a technology that could be employed on the Marine Corps’ current fleet of ground vehicles, such as Humvees, enabling them to operate with or without drivers onboard. In July 2010, GUSS was incorporated into LOE-4 in Hawaii and tested in both autonomous robotic mule and manned CASEVAC modes.
“A lot of data are still being captured and compiled from the technical side, but, overall, the experiment was very successful,” Reynolds reported. “GUSS will continue as a project at MCWL for at least another two years and is scheduled to be included in the Enhanced MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] Operations [EMO] experiment in the summer of 2011.
“Between now and then, we will do some spiral development, taking lessons learned from LOE-4 and trying to do some improvements in perception. EMO-1 will concentrate on fires, so we will see how this type of platform could facilitate an artillery unit.”
The long-range objective is to provide Marines in the field with a scalable capability, both larger and smaller than GUSS.
“On the smaller side, you have another system – the MAARS [Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System] robot – which was a Ground Combat Element project that also was inserted into LOE-4, where the squad was able to use this unmanned armed system to facilitate their operations,” he continued. “GUSS is more mid-scale. On the larger side, you have Humvee and TVR [Tactical Vehicle Replacement].
“We just started a project called the Unmanned Cargo Vehicle, which involves putting an autonomous system on a standard 6×6 TVR, integrating the unmanned platform into our combat logistics patrols. We’re shooting to have it do two functions: First, lead the convoy in a route recon role if the convoy is in an area that may be heavily trafficked by enemy forces and they haven’t had a chance to send out a route clearance force. The second is to integrate it within the convoy as a follower. The goal of that project is to insert into EMO-2 in 2012, which will focus on logistics.”
As the Corps and others move forward with developing UGV systems, a debate continues over the best mode of movement – wheels, tracks, or legs.
“We have not looked at tracked, but we do keep an eye on the BigDog technology,” Reynolds said. “It all depends on where you are operating and your long-term objectives. In a very restricted terrain, it would be easier for a legged platform to move around. But in more open terrain, the benefit switches to wheeled. So it really is mission dependent. We’re not working on any legged vehicles right now – nor do we expect to in the near future. However, part of our job in the Technology Division is to keep the pulse on what is going on in industry and the other services.”
One such technology is the Robonaut, a humanoid robot developed by NASA in partnership with General Motors for use on the space station (where it is scheduled to go before the end of 2010) and in auto manufacturing plants. While not currently part of the Marine Corps plan, that could change.
“For certain missions, absolutely, if we can make it sophisticated enough,” Goulding said. “I’m always a little antsy about putting a rifle in CPU-driven fingers, but I would love to give it an ISR capability. I don’t know if we’re ready to have it do soldiering tasks, but I’m certainly interested in the lab looking at it and assessing the utility. The TTPs point would have to look very carefully at where there is applicability, but things like that do interest us.”
Both UAVs and UGVs have proven themselves in combat as ways to give the warfighter a little greater standoff room when it comes to unexploded ordnance, IEDs, and other suspicious objects or unknown locations, Thompson said. And that is the purpose of MCWL’s experiments with next-generation capabilities and enhancements.
“The future of utility UGVs in combat is growing, but one size does not fit all. I believe no system is perfect in every environment and we are doing a lot of trail blazing in paths forward in robotics. Tracked would be more appropriate in some environments, wheeled in others, legged in others, so we are not limiting ourselves in understanding the capabilities of each and are investigating their individual benefits and drawbacks,” he said, but added it is the Marines in the field who make the final decisions.
“Some of the robots we currently have in theater were designed specifically for EOD and route clearance, but when we sent them over the soldiers and Marines used them in ways we never expected, which is fantastic. We give them the tools and tell them what they can do, then they show us how many more things they can do. The innovation they have shown with robotics has been phenomenal and proves we are a field in its infancy.”
As an aviator, he compares the current state of military robotics to that of aircraft in the 1920s and ’30s, when their role was expanding rapidly only a couple of decades after the Wright brothers’ first flight.
“We are doing our best to keep what Marines in theater now have, giving them the improvements they are asking for as they need them. I won’t speculate on any of their TTPs – our job is to provide capability and what they do with that capability is their responsibility,” he added. “And I highly encourage their ability to innovate on the battlefield. It is the Marine on point and the commander in the field who determine the best way to bridge that next obstacle or look over the next ridgeline, making best use of any piece of equipment they have.
“One important factor, for us and them, is SWAP-C [size, weight, power and cost] – especially, they want smaller. We currently have a robot under 35 pounds that can be put into a backpack for overland use. They also want a robot that can provide persistent stare or long-term mission capability for up to 24 hours, but we’re not there yet. The labs are working to get them what they need and, when it comes to fruition, my organization is responsible for the material development and fielding those solutions.”
As with most technological advances today, the future of robotics will be a blend of commercial and military requirements and developments, with each providing some of the impetus and evolution.
“The military probably has a more urgent need for unmanned helicopters [than commercial users] and so will drive that,” Reynolds said. “But Oshkosh has been running unmanned [ground] vehicles at strip mines for years and we are modifying that technology for use in military applications. So we will drive some of the technology evolution, industry will drive others.”
And while DARPA will continue to pursue the “far side” of the evolution – or, in their case, often revolution – in robotics technology, MCWL’s primary focus will remain with how existing technologies can best be adapted, quickly and effectively, to meet immediate warfighter needs in the current fight.
“Yesterday, I spent most of the morning planning an experiment for next year in which we will use autonomous and/or remote-controlled vehicles for route reconnaissance and clearance,” Reynolds continued. “We spent three hours with a lot of very smart people who have a dog in the fight, trying to determine what unit will own that gear, who will be responsible for programming it.
“All those are part of the concept of deployment before we put anything on the ground for an experiment. That’s the kind of thought process the lab does – it’s not just toys for boys, but how does a piece of gear meet the need we have going forward; in this case, replacing a human being driving down the road in a convoy.”
At the same time, MCWL, working with other service labs, academia, and industry, also will continue looking at what is happening in the gap between “now and DARPA,” such as NASA’s humanoid robot, for possible Marine Corps use five, 10, or 15 years from now.
“With so many potential applications for unmanned systems across the spectrum, where the technology division is trying to support concepts today and in the near future, our science and technology unit is looking further down the road,” Reynolds concluded, adding the least concern is how Marines in the field will react to an increasing robotic presence.
“In LOE-4, GUSS was accepted by the squad and treated like a fourteenth member. Once Marines are trained on these and understand the capabilities they can bring to them as a maneuver element, they are very acceptive. The smaller robots already have saved countless lives, especial EOD Marines. With the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think robots have earned a place in DoD, because the capabilities of these systems continue to grow and expand.”
This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2010-2o11 Edition.