An added wrinkle to an otherwise routine field training exercise last year in Grafenwoehr, Germany, provides a glimpse of Army operations in the not-too-distant future.
Humans took a backseat during a critical part of the action as robots cleared a minefield and bridged a tank trench to create a path for manned combat vehicles.
U.S. and British troops participated in the Robotic Complex Breach Concept demonstration, during which soldiers operated engineer vehicles by remote control instead of from the driver’s seat.
“We did a robotic breach today, which has never been done before. This is a historic moment,” 1st Lt. Cody Rothschild, an officer with the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team told Stars and Stripes. “This is a great step forward for the Army, and for robotics.”
It’s even a bigger step for combat engineers, who absorb most of the enemy fire during such an assault.
“As an engineer, this means a lot to me,” said 1st Lt. Felix Derosin, a platoon leader with the brigade. “The casualty rate for a breach is expected to be 50 percent. Being able to take our guys away from that, and have some robots go in there, is a very positive thing for us. In the future, this can save engineers’ lives.”
Robots have been helping save lives for more than a decade. U.S. troops began using the Packbot in Afghanistan in 2002. Made by iRobot, which is now Endeavor Robotics, it had a camera and an extendable arm on a chassis with two tracked wheels. The robot and others like it later became essential tools in Iraq to help disable improvised explosive devices.
Similar devices also assist in reconnaissance and the detection of chemical and biological agents in places too dangerous for humans to enter.
But in the coming years, advancing technology will enable robots to take on more functions within many units. They’ll haul cargo, evacuate the wounded and be first on scene in hazardous scenarios. And by the end of the next decade, robots may contribute much more to the fight than breaching obstacles.
They won’t be the cyborgs from the Terminator movies, but they likely will change the nature of combat.
“My personal estimate is that robots will play a significant role in combat inside of a decade or a decade and a half,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chief of the Army, told a Senate hearing last year.
He warned that China and Russia “are investing heavily and very quickly” in the use of ground, sea and aerial robots. And, Milley added, “we are doing the same.”
One big difference is China and Russia are designing artificially intelligent warfighting robots, which could shoot without human prompting. The Defense Department is cautious about developing battlefield machines that make their own decisions, officials say.
“There is always going to be a [person] in the loop before the trigger is pulled,” said Bryan McVeigh, the Army’s product manager for Force Projection systems in the Program Executive Office for Combat Support & Combat Service Support.
He adds that the emphasis on robotics will, in the end, save soldiers’ lives.
“It gets the warfighter out of harm’s way,” he said. “To date, we’ve had about 893 robots that have been blown up in theatre. We equate that to three soldiers’ lives every time a robot is blown up, instead of a soldier being in harm’s way. So they’ve saved more than 2,400 lives if you do the math.”
“My personal estimate is that robots will play a significant role in combat inside of a decade or a decade and a half.”
—Gen. Mark A. Milley, Army Chief of Staff
The U.S. military has enlisted industry, academia and its own scientists to help conceive and design robots for military applications.
At the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, researchers are training machines to navigate through hazardous underground spaces.
“We are talking about deep, dark and quite honestly unknown environments where the robots will have to find their way with no light or low light, in dust or fog or smoke. They have to navigate rough terrain or other obstacles, including things like escalator ramps and transit platforms,” says Dr. Timothy Chung, the program manager for the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.
Chung’s program is experimental, a sort of underground scavenger hunt for emerging capabilities. But it’s the kind of concept that could bolster the National Guard’s domestic response capabilities.
These versatile robots would be able navigate without GPS and communicate even when cell signal isn’t available. In the wake of an earthquake, a building collapse or other disaster, the Guard could send in the robots first to glean key situational intelligence.
“If we are successful, we will be able to keep more humans out of harm’s way,” Chung says.
A number of recent examples help to describe a widening landscape of robotic capabilities:
● At Michigan Technological University, researchers on an Office of Naval Research grant are developing robots that can build and operate electrical power systems. During a disaster, they could have the lights back on perhaps even before the Guard arrives on the scene.
● A finalist in the Army’s Common Robotic System-Individual competition, the Scorpion robot, another Endeavor Robotics product, can help clear buildings or confined areas, identify enemy positions and scout for explosive hazards. It weighs just 25 pounds. The Army envisions soldiers toting these in backpacks. The service would like to award a contract this year to build up to 3,000 of them.
● Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division and the Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, have been testing a variety of robotic “gear mules” — rugged robot carts that can haul 1,000 pounds of equipment and supplies in austere conditions. Designed for the battlefield, the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport could also be an asset in domestic response. Four companies are competing for a contract that officials want to award next year.
Robots already are poised to handle routine tasks such as securing a perimeter or performing surveillance operations in a situation where all they need to do is watch for a change state, such as the appearance of a vehicle on the horizon.
“We want to be able to tell them, ‘Just go and do that, and if you notice anything, communicate it back.’ That is a capability on the near-term horizon,” says Geoffrey Slipher, the chief of the Autonomous Systems Division in Army Research Lab’s Vehicle Technology Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
Israel already uses something like this to augment its human patrols along some of its borders.
In the near future, robots performing intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance functions missions could be programmed to work together. For example, an aerial drone and a remotely controlled ground vehicle could execute missions in tandem, thereby reducing potential blind sports.
“We want to reduce the amount that the soldier has to deal with.”
— Jeremy P. Bos Michigan Technological University researcher U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development & Engineering Center
“In the same perimeter mission, the drone could talk to a ground asset, and that asset then could go up to or into a building to investigate further,” Slipher says. “They would do this just the way two soldiers do it, each aware of its position and its situation, and they would play off each other’s strengths.”
Some say that kind of teaming makes perfect sense, as it mirrors the way the military already operates.
“Most military tasks, from reconnaissance to warfighting, can only be accomplished by a group of operators,” says C. “Nat” Nataraj, an engineering professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia who studies robots under a military grant.
“Different autonomous vehicles may carry different payloads or have different capabilities. Maybe one collects information and another is a communications hub,” he says. “Autonomy will involve all these different functionalities working together. The military relies on teams to do things well, and that will extend to autonomy.”
The Army also envisions robots teaming to support each other in battle. They’ll not only provide firepower but will keep themselves supplied in the heat of the fight.
“Future robotic systems will be fighting in battles and there will be such high op tempo, we won’t want human units in those high-intensity environments,” Slipher says. “So when they run out of ammo or fuel or the tread breaks on a vehicle, we will use autonomous systems to do that resupply work.”
The speed in which robots change the way the military fights will also create challenges. Soldiers will have to learn how to operate and maintain what will be highly complex pieces of equipment.
The Army says it is looking to ease all this by developing a common controller that will work with all program-of-record robots.
“As our user interfaces improve, it will reduce the burden on training,” says McVeigh at the Army’s Program Executive Office. Those common controllers could start rolling out as soon as 2020, “and it will significantly reduce the cognitive burden on soldiers.” Troops will also have to adapt their tactics to take advantage of the new technology, experts say.
“Your platoon leaders are going to need to figure out how and when they are going to employ these systems,” says Phil Herndon, a senior manager with Endeavor Robotics. “When does the infantry stop and take a knee and send in the robots, versus how they currently operate? And when the robots start sending back information, where does that information go?”
No doubt there will be leaning curve, but there is no stopping — or even slowing — the move to greater use of more robotics.
“It’s about freeing up personnel,” says Jeremy P. Bos, a Michigan Technological University researcher who is working on a robotics project with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development & Engineering Center.
“Rather than having to carry 50 or 80 pounds of equipment, I should be able to just put it on an unmanned equipment transport and have it follow me around or go on ahead of me,” he says. “We want to reduce the amount that the soldier has to deal with.”
Adam Stone is an Annapolis, Maryland freelance writer who specializes in defense issues. He can be contacted via [email protected] ngaus.org