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Unmanned Logistics Support

21st century robotic beasts of burden

“The manned/unmanned teaming concept is the holy grail for UGVs – integrating a robot down to the lowest maneuver element, contribute to fires, carry loads, provide surveillance, and counter-IED. We’re a long way from that, but in 20 years, we should be pretty close to doing that manned/unmanned teaming concept.”

Big Dogs

The LS3 program goal is to develop a robot that will go through the same terrain the squad goes through without hindering the squad’€™s mission. The robot could also serve as a mobile auxiliary power source to the squad, so troops can recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol. DARPA photo

Major public awareness of walking robots as a serious concept for combat use came in 2005 with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)/Boston DynamicsBig Dog,” the first large, four-legged platform demonstrating superior balance and ability to move across surfaces that would block wheeled vehicles. While Big Dog proved the concept, the newer Legged Squad Support System (LS3) uses advanced technologies to move walking robotic ‘mules’ closer to reality.

“LS3 seeks to demonstrate that a highly mobile, semi-autonomous legged robot can carry 400 pounds of a squad’s load, follow squad members through rugged terrain and interact with troops in a natural way, similar to a trained animal and its handler,” according to DARPA. “The robot could also serve as a mobile auxiliary power source to the squad, so troops can recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol.”

The LS3 prototype completed its first outdoor assessment in January 2012, walking up and down a hill and exercising what DARPA called “perception capabilities.” A two-year, platform-refinement test cycle began in July 2012, with USMC and Army involvement, culminating in a planned capstone exercise where LS3 should embed with Marines conducting field exercises.

“During this period, DARPA seeks to finish the development of and refine LS3’s technologies to provide a suite of autonomy settings, including leader-follower tight, leader-follower corridor and go-to-waypoint,” according to DARPA. “Additionally, technologies to allow squad members to speak commands to LS3 are anticipated to be added during this period.

“LS3 represents the culmination of a decade of research in perception and autonomy with programs like DARPA’s Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle-Perception for Off-Road Robotics Integration program, mobility work with DARPA’s ‘Big Dog’ and significant advances in natural human-robot interface, such as voice recognition.”

Jarvis said MCWL is monitoring the DARPA tests and the USMC looks forward to evaluating that capability. But the future of walking robots – for logistics and other applications – is not limited to four legs, and eventually may include humanoid units.

“That is the long-range goal, to have something like that in our squads or fire teams – but it doesn’t have to be humanoid. A four-legged platform could carry more,” he said. “But basically that robotic squad member would incorporate all the capabilities of all the initiatives being considered today as an all-purpose robot. Wheeled and tracked limits where it can go, so a legged system might be the best approach.”

The joint “Unmanned Ground Systems Roadmap” produced by the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, the UGV Modernization Strategy, and the Army UGV Campaign Plan all demonstrate how important robots of all types are to the U.S. military’s future logistics plans. Among the other programs outlined in those are:

  • Squad Multi-Purpose Equipment Transport (S-MET)
  • Multifunctional Utility Logistics Equipment (MULE)
  • Autonomous Expeditionary Support Platform (AESP)
  • Squad Robotic Support Utility Vehicle (SRSUV)
  • Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS)
  • Safe Operations of Unmanned Systems for Reconnaissance in Complex Environments (SOURCE)
  • Self-transportable class of vehicles (CoV)Appliqué CoV

The Future

Current Army and USMC plans for unmanned logistics systems are designed to provide warfighters with maximum sustainment in all potential conflict types through 2035. Accomplishing that means creating and leveraging innovative solutions. That includes developing advanced perception and manipulation capabilities, tactical behaviors, micro autonomous systems, and improved human-robot interfaces.

“We have been working closely with the Army for the past two years because the right way to go is to leverage off each other,” Jarvis said. “So we have sat in on the Robotics Integration Team, discussing different approaches, solutions, and ideas for the future.”

That future ultimately extends beyond the concepts discussed above to include robotic systems to improve material handling, exoskeletons to increase warfighter strength and endurance, robotics-based packaging, warehousing, refueling, ship-to-shore transport, and more.

“Use of unmanned robotics-based systems will maximize soldier protection and help enable high-performance, agile and flexible soldier support,” the LIA stated. “With the expected asymmetric nature of future conflicts, the Army logistics community must continue to explore and leverage innovative robotics solutions to meet current and expected operational needs, improve survivability and increase flexibility of sustainment support solutions for the Joint Force.”

This story was first published in Defense: Fall 2012 Edition.

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