Robotic Mules Ready to Be Fielded, Vendors Say

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Robotic Mules Ready to Be Fielded, Vendors Say


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


* When the military is prepared to call in mechanized mules to help lighten the loads of overburdened soldiers, companies that build robots say they are ready with a variety of solutions.

The Army fielded its first four driverless vehicles designed to autonomously haul supplies for foot soldiers in Afghanistan late this summer The Lockheed Martin-built squad mission support system (SMSS), a six-wheeled semi-autonomous vehicle weighing 3,800 pounds, is intended to carry heavy loads in the mountainous country. Taking the burden off of overloaded soldiers and marines has been a long-standing problem in the military. The surge into Afghanistan, where roads are poor, and the terrain is hilly, has forced troops to go on more foot patrols. That in turn is prompting the Army to finally allow autonomous robots into war zones.

"It's a crawl, walk, run situation," said Mark Bodwell, group manager of military affairs business development at John Deere. Vendors have robots that can perform the task, but concerns about how to integrate robotic systems into a unit's tactics, techniques and procedures has stymied their deployment, he said.

The squad mission support system will help inform Army leaders on how that may work.

If the SMSS ever becomes a formal program, vendors have robots ready to compete with Lockheed Martin.

John Deere has an autonomous version of its M-Gator four-wheeled ground vehicle. Gators are small utility vehicles, which the company has been selling to the military for 13 years John Deere married an autonomous robotics package to its military model to create the R-Gator unmanned ground vehicle.

When it comes to automating dirty, dangerous or dull tasks performed in vehicles, the company, better known for its tractors and combines, is one of the largest robotics companies in the world, Bodwell said.

"Most of the big tractors you see out in the held have things like mapping and planning, GPS coordination, driver's assist--a series of robotics that we didn't have 20 years ago because farming has changed so much," he said.

The software is based on leader-follower techniques. In this mode, a soldier commands the robot to stay a certain distance behind as he walks.

"The real secret [of leader-follower] is how do you do that and what's the use for the war fighter," he said. "When someone says follow me, that can mean a lot of different things." It could mean following 30 minutes later, or flanking, he said.

The idea was to create an affordable robot by putting inexpensive commercial-off-the-shelf cameras and sensors aboard to help it navigate. The collision avoidance radar is the same one found on Cadillac bumpers, for example.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"What you end up with is a robotic chassis that's at a high technical readiness level," he said. …

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