Magazine article National Defense

Move over Fido: Marines' New Best Friend Could Be a Robotic 'Mule'

Magazine article National Defense

Move over Fido: Marines' New Best Friend Could Be a Robotic 'Mule'

Article excerpt

MARINE CORPS TRAINING AREA-BELLOWS, HAWAII--Most of the services are embracing robots faster than companies can manufacture them.

The Air Force has its Predators and Reapers. The Army will soon fly the Predator family's latest addition, the Gray Eagle, in greater numbers. Meanwhile, the Navy is preparing to operate robotic boats, underwater craft and unmanned helicopters.

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As for the Marine Corps, it has been lagging behind its peers in the use of robotics because until recently it hadn't figured out what it wanted to do with the technology. Marines are flying unmanned aircraft as surveillance tools. Now officials want to employ ground robots as a means to reduce casualties from roadside bombs and to lighten the loads on troops.

In partnership with Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is working with Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, Va.-based TORC Technologies to create GUSS, the ground unmanned support surrogate vehicle.

Engineers integrated drive-by-wire technology, sensors and autonomous control mechanisms onto a Polaris all-terrain vehicle. Designed for resupply missions, casualty evacuation and carrying gear, GUSS functions in three modes: tele-operated, semi-autonomous and autonomous.

Operators can control the vehicle using a handheld device called WaySight, which resembles a boxy camcorder. By looking through the viewfinder and pressing a button, they can send GUSS to a designated location. Troops also can drive GUSS in "Wii" mode by turning the WaySight like a steering wheel as it moves along. On the passenger side of the vehicle, there is a removable operator control unit where they can pre-plan a route by using the touch screen interface. GUSS can execute a mission on its own, or it can follow a marine by honing in on his WaySight.

The lab developed four GUSS units, with the fourth vehicle carrying a tele-operated M240G machine gun system called the modular advanced armed robotic system, or MAARS. All four made their way to Hawaii where they were placed into the hands of marines from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment and 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment for an experiment.

Sgt. Benjamin Johns, a squad leader in 2/3's 3rd Platoon, Golf Company, went on hours-long patrols with GUSS.

"It came in really handy as far as carrying extra water. Some of the patrols we did were five or seven hours long," he said. Unlike his peers who were operating 30 miles north in the Kahukus Training Area without any vehicles to help them carry water, Johns' squad was able to load 20 gallons onto GUSS and have it travel alongside the troops on patrol. When their CamelBak hydration systems were depleted, the marines could resupply from GUSS and press onward.

"We wouldn't have been able to do that without GUSS out there to sustain us because of how hot it was. Everyone was drinking a lot of water," said Johns.

Sgt. Luke Maxon, a squad leader in 1st Platoon, which did not possess robotic vehicles, said that a number of patrols were sacrificed in the north because his marines quickly ran out of water.

When units came under fire and suffered casualties in the exercise, Johns said that they used GUSS to help evacuate injured marines.

"It cut down the time it would normally take by 300 percent because you didn't have to take away the manpower," he said. "Carrying a casualty takes four marines, which is an entire fire team out of the fight, while you're trying to get a marine to a safe landing zone so that he can be medevaced. …

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