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U.S. Marine Corps Unmanned Systems Expand and Evolve

A few good 'bots

“With respect to engine heating, that currently is under investigation and we are looking at reliability upgrades. But it is not an issue and we plan to move forward with weaponizing Shadow,” Maj. Nicholas Neimer, RQ-7 Shadow requirements officer, said.

The Corps plans to have a Shadow armed with a munition weighing less than 25 pounds (about one-quarter the weight of the Hellfire missile carried by the much larger Air Force Predator and Reaper UAVs) and is continuing toward initial testing no later than July 2013. A weaponized Shadow is seen as a short-term solution for the Corps, however, as the Marine Aviation Plan calls for a next-generation replacement in 2016.

Not everyone in the Marine Corps sees UAVs on an equal footing with their ground-based cousins. According to Capt. John Pico, Command & Control Integration Division (C2ID) capabilities integration officer in the C2ID’s Capabilities Development Directorate, UAVs have not yet achieved the level of use and support the Corps has experienced with UGVs. Even so, he acknowledges they have seen steady improvement and more use, although in narrower niches than with the other services.

MAARS

MAARS, designed expressly for reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition missions to increase the security of personnel manning forward locations, can be positioned in remote areas where personnel are currently unable to monitor their security, and can also carry either a direct or indirect fire weapon system. QinetQ photo

“UAVs can’t be relied on right now for persistent coverage, so all our communications relay and transmission sites must be ground based. In a limited time operation or raid, however, using UAVs is a help for specific missions, such as ISR,” he said. “Aerostats [tethered airships], specifically, give us great communications relay capabilities in Afghanistan, but there are some drawbacks, such as static position and limited mobility of the ground force.

“Without buying a lot of UAVs and pushing them down to the unit level, which would increase their footprint, I don’t see relying on them any time soon. But if you can use them, it’s another tool in the toolbox.”

Efforts to advance the UGV side of Corps robotics also are under way. Among the demonstrator systems being examined are:

  • Modular Advanced Armed Robotics System (MAARS®), a 350-pound, multiple payload-capable mini-tank from QinetiQ, equipped with remote targeting and weapons engagement and advanced ISR for greater situational awareness. According to MCWL, MAARS “includes the capacity for a complete escalation-of-force package, allowing for a scaled response along the application of force continuum.”
  • Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS), a wheeled vehicle resembling an all-terrain golf cart, being developed by TORC Robotics to act as a “mule” to carry items warfighters now carry on their own backs.
  • Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements (MTVRs), autonomous or optionally driven 7-ton Oshkosh trucks for convoy operations.
  • Legged Squad Support System (LS3), the next generation of DARPA’s walking cargo robots, is a four-legged semi-autonomous robotic “mule” that can carry 400 pounds of supplies while following a squad through rugged terrain; it also could serve as a mobile auxiliary power source to recharge radio and hand-held device batteries while on patrol.
LS3 Four-legged Robot

The LS3 program goal is to develop a four-legged robot that can traverse difficult terrain without hindering missions while also serving as a mobile auxiliary power source to the squad while on patrol. DARPA photo

Numerous Marine Corps documents in the past decade have outlined a growing commitment to acquiring combat robots designed to function in all the environments in which Marines operate – from the sea, in jungles, deserts, mountains, urban areas, from ice and snow to wind and sand. While the other services have somewhat similar requirements, the Marines typically add the need to be lightweight, man-portable, easy to operate, and reliable in any situation.

“Wherever Marines go, unmanned systems must follow,” Jarvis concluded, adding that the number of robots and their types are hard to predict. “Definitely there will be a large range of assets, down to the fire team and even some individual Marines, with microbots. We will be limited on cost, so it is unlikely we will get a robot into the hands of every Marine, but I do expect a good number of ground robots to help them succeed in their missions.”

And just as the Corps has always held fast to the concept “every Marine a rifleman,” he sees something similar for Marine Corps robots, both UGVs and UAVs: “Pretty much every platform will have some type of camera or other sensors, so when it is not doing some other primary effort, you could always send it out to do ISR. Some would be better suited than others, but I suspect all will have that capability.”

This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2012-2013 Edition.

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