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Army Spotlights Ground Robotic Progress, Upcoming Afghanistan Deployment

Following the recent transfer of program management responsibilities for ground robotic systems [see “U.S. Army Solidifies UGV Commitment,” posted Jan. 21, 2011], the U.S. Army recently hosted a media round table with Scott Davis, program executive officer for Ground Combat Systems (PEO GCS), and Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, project manager for Robotic Systems in the Joint Program Office (PM RSJPO). Topics discussed included interoperability initiatives, theater support and capability enhancements for the Army’s Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV), Anti-Personnel Mine Clearing System (M-160), Talon, MARCbot, Mini-EOD, PackBot, and other robotic systems.

SUGV and operator BCT

PEO Ground Combat Systems would like to see the operator and robot working in more of a manned/unmanned team, much like a hunter and hunting dog. Photo by Scott Gourley

When asked about how the imminent fielding of the SUGV will affect Army robotics [see “U.S. Army BCT Modernization Alters Course,” posted Feb. 8, 2011], Thompson replied, “From the interoperability perspective it’s actually a huge benefit for us, because of the commonality between the SUGV 320, which is also known as the XM1216, and the currently fielded system, the SUGV 310, also known as the Mini-EOD. So we are looking forward to opportunities from the commonality between those two systems and the familiarity that we already have out in the field with the Mini-EOD, in anticipation of that SUGV 320 being fielded out to the warfighter.”

Turning to the issue of “Manned/Unmanned Teaming” he offered a view of how the concept is evolving from unmanned aerial systems to ground robotics.

Describing it as “a level of collaboration between the manned and the unmanned system,” he explained, “Just like [the term] ‘autonomy,’ it varies in degree. But as we worked it previously in FCS, the thought was that for our larger Class IV UAV that it could actually fly forward of the manned aircraft in a largely autonomous mode, scanning and looking for targets. And, if need be, the pilot of the manned aircraft could take control and move it behind him or move it somewhere else. So you have this ability where it’s almost like having a ‘wingman’ except that the wingman isn’t manned.”

“And the same applies to the unmanned ground vehicle and the potential for use within a Heavy Brigade Combat Team or even a Stryker Brigade Combat Team, to have an unmanned system mixed in, either doing bounding over watch or peripheral protection, etc.,” Thompson added. “That’s what we foresee as manned/unmanned teaming.”

Lockheed Martin SMSS

Lockheed Martin’s SMSS is one of the contenders in the Project Workhorse program. Lockheed Martin photo

“The same manned/unmanned teaming concept is true for ‘dismounts’ and the smaller robots,” echoed Jeff Jaczkowski, Deputy Project Manager for Robotic Systems. “We talk about teaming at that level and the vision for that is more of the small robots operating in concert with the dismounts at a higher level of ‘intuition,’ lower burden for the dismounted operators, going from heads down control…[to more of a] ‘hunting dog’ kind of partnership. I would say that end state manned/unmanned teaming at that level has the robot as a co-combatant.”

In addition to taking an increasing amount of the cognitive and tactical workload off of the Soldier or Marine, robotic platforms are also being explored for their logistics benefits. In fact, under an emerging program called “Project Workhorse” the Army will soon award contracts for what is believed to be a four platform set of larger robotic vehicles that will be deployed to Afghanistan later this year for tactical field experiments.

R-Gator, Project Workhorse contender

John Deere’s R-Gator, an unmanned version of its popular Gator, is also considered a top contender in Project Workhorse. Photo courtesy of John Deere

One of the systems known to be in consideration for Project Workhorse is Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS).

Other candidates are believed to include the R-Gator, a robotic conversion of the John Deere “Gator” platform.

Asked about Project Workhorse and the status of an expected March 2011 decision, JPO representatives clarified, “That is an initiative [under which] we are cooperating with the Rapid Equipping Force to help assess overseas. However, they are the lead on that particular system.”

While declining to provide specific timelines on the program at this point, Thompson clarified that the section is “pre-decisional,” adding, “We are excited that it should only be a few more months before we see that potentially being inserted into theater for some evaluation.”


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...