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U.S. Marine Corps Unmanned Systems Expand and Evolve

A few good 'bots

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From the early days of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Marine Corps has been one of the most ardent supporters and users of unmanned systems, from hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to tiny unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) used to search under cars for bombs at checkpoints or go into buildings or caves ahead of their human operators.

Those on the ground in theater sometimes named their robotic squad members, in at least one case even holding a “funeral” for a bomb-seeker blown up by its target. When a theater commander wanted to transfer some in-short-supply small UGVs from Marines to an Army unit, he reportedly was told he “did not want to get between a Marine and his robot.”

While the Air Force operates the U.S. military’s largest and best-known UAVs, the Navy its maritime platforms, and the Army the majority of smaller rocket- or catapult-launched aircraft, the Corps has one of the best records of utilization and integration, especially among combat engineers and IED (improvised explosive device) and EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) specialists.

TALON Robot

Marines operate a TALON robot to disarm an IED during a demonstration at Marine Day on April 30, 2010. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jahn R. Kuiper

“The EOD folks were the origin of our UGV use, even before 9/11. But getting into theater in OEF/OIF, there was a boom in UGVs we’ve used to counter the IED threat,” noted Lt. Col. David Jarvis, Marine combat engineer capabilities integration officer with the Fires and Maneuver Integration Division’s Combat Development Directorate. “All the robots we have been using have been in response to urgent needs statements, mostly to counter IEDs. Those have used existing technology we could get out quickly to Marines in theater.

“The first program of record, where we put out specific requirements for industry to meet, was route reconnaissance and clearance [R2C], a family of systems that is not strictly robotics – MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles], vehicle-mounted mine detectors, and other tools contributing to counter-IED. Within each vehicle is a requirement for two robots that can go out and identify and neutralize IED threats. That program is in support of combat engineers who would equip these R2C platoons. We’re past the milestone for product selection, so these robots should be fielded in the next few years.”

Oshkosh TerraMax UGV

The Oshkosh TerraMax UGV is capable of tele-op, leader/follower, and full autonomy – a full range of operability. The Marine Corps is evaluating the TerraMax UGV Technology as part of the Cargo UGV initiative. Photo courtesy of Oshkosh Defense

The second USMC program of record will be an Engineer Squad Robot (ESR), far smaller than the R2C, which must be transported in a vehicle. Based on requirements identified in theater, the ESR would be man-packable (about 15 to 25 pounds). Jarvis said his office is developing a capabilities requirements document they plan to put into competition in program objective memorandum (POM) 2015.

However, the Marines’ most recent UGV roadmap calls for a continued close collaboration with the Army to leverage off each other’s developments and capabilities in the future, when far more UGVs are expected to take the field alongside human warriors. That includes a joint Robotics Integration Team (RIT) – with Navy and Air Force participation – that examines different approaches, solutions, and ideas for the future.

“One agreement to achieve commonality is a classification of robots into four different categories – man-transportable, vehicle-transportable, self-transportable, or vehicular and a robotic applique kit – brains and motors you can put on existing vehicles in our inventory that could make that vehicle into a robot,” Jarvis explained. “That has a lot of Marine interest, to take the DDD [dull, dirty, dangerous] work away from warfighters. Driving long distances in convoys can be pretty dull and dangerous, so robotic applique kits can enhance safety because the robot is always alert.

“That joint effort has led to a memo of agreement now being staffed in the Army and Marine Corps to determine which service will be the lead on which category, so we don’t duplicate our efforts. The Marine Corps has taken the lead on a tactical robotic controller, basically a common controller for different classes of robots, not only UGVs but also UAVs. That way, when buying future robots, the price tag can exclude separate operational controllers; you also don’t want multiple controllers in the field.”

The RIT also works to make any robot multifunctional, both within a given service and across service needs. For example, the ESR is being designed as a common platform for multiple specialties, such as reconnaissance and surveillance, which is not a current Corps requirement but may be of more immediate interest to the Army.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...