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Army Fielding Robo Jeeps in A’Stan

by John Reed on August 5, 2011

In case you didn’t see this, Army is set to send four of Lockheed’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) robot jeeps to Afghanistan where they’ll haul supplies for troops. The trucks are being sent there as part of a test program to see just how useful robot cargo trucks can be. The 11-foot long trucks can carry a half a ton of supplies for  up to 125 miles after being delivered to the field in a CH-47 or CH-53 helo.

The SMSS can either lock on to and follow the 3D profile of a soldier using its on-board sensors or it can use GPS to navigate along a pre-programmed route. Oh, and yes, there’s still the option for a man to hop in and drive it.

Besides the obvious benefit of reducing the load carried by an infantryman (giving him more mobility and energy) the little trucks could be the first step toward reducing the number of humans needed to ressuply bases. As many of you know, the military has taken to airlifting supplies to remote bases in an effort to take convoys of manned trucks off the road where they are vulnerable to ambushes and IED attacks. However, in time, it may be possible to use robo-trucks to resupply bases.

From a Lockheed announcement:

The largest autonomous vehicle ever to be deployed with infantry, the 11-foot-long SMSS can carry more than half-a-ton of a squad’s equipment on rugged terrain, easing the individual soldier’s burden, which can often exceed 100 pounds.

“SMSS is the result of more than a decade of robotic technology development, and we welcome the opportunity to demonstrate this capability in theater, where it can have an immediate impact at the squad level,” said Scott Greene, vice president of ground vehicles in Lockheed Martin’s Missiles and Fire Control business. “The Army has tested the system’s capabilities in three domestic user assessments, and SMSS has been deemed ready to deploy.”

As part of the three-month Military Utility Assessment (MUA), four vehicles and a field service representative will support light infantry in theater as the service evaluates how autonomous vehicles can support or ease the equipment burden for deployed troops. A fifth vehicle and an engineering team will remain in the U.S. for analysis and additional support. The Army plans to begin the Afghanistan assessment late this year, after a period of evaluations and training.

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

blight August 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm

MULE has finally arrived?

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STemplar August 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm

How much $ ?

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Spanner August 5, 2011 at 12:52 pm

One possible drawback: The SMSS gets taken out and all the gear goes with it.

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FormerDirtDart August 5, 2011 at 1:02 pm

How is that different from any other vehicle the Army uses? That's like saying one drawback of a Bradley, Stryker, MRAP, HMMWV, or what ever, is that they get taken out you likely lose all the troops and equipment.

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Jim Norcal August 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm

If the robo jeep is by itself travelling along a pre-programmed path to supply a location 60 miles away, it is completely vulnerable that 60 miles as there's no troops protecting the jeep or its cargo. If an IED stops it, its cargo is as good as gone. If a regular truck that is being driven by soldiers is hit, unless the soldiers are killed, that gear wills till be protected by armed troops.

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blight August 5, 2011 at 4:41 pm

The present alternative is carrying loads on everyone's backs and travelling so slowly that a force cannot escape being caught by lighter, faster, enemies.

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TMB August 6, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Blight, if they tie up all their gear to this thing, where is it going to be when they're fighting or patrolling? Someone has to keep an eye on this treasure trove of equipment. If it's going to follow them, then it'll make noise, someone has to drive it, and the unit will be afraid to separate themselves from it for fear of losing their equipment. What kind of mileage does this thing get? Will the team have to constantly refuel it? Will this vehicle increase the endurance of a patrol or will the patrol be a slave to its presence?

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ajSpades August 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm

You could always drop back to low tech solutions, like an actual living pack mule. I would love to see a cost vs risk analysis of using mules instead of jeeps.

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SJE August 6, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Exactly. Of course, defense contractors are not going to make money that way.

Jeff M August 6, 2011 at 1:35 am

This is one of those ideas that blows me away, so simple and so effective. Why didn't this come along sooner? So now troops can step off a helo with 1000 lbs of gear in addition to what they're carrying, extending their mission capacity by an order of magnitude with robotic support?

"Pack up the coffee maker fellas"

Now it needs to have a sat link and remote turrent and pilot. This is the beginning of a major game changing weapons platform. Mini unmanned tank.

Great work.

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Brian S August 8, 2011 at 9:30 am

Hmmm, you're onto something.. They have systems that can triangulate gun fire.. So why not? I can see it now, a convoy of these things with remote turrets.. Just traveling on their own to their destination.. System picks up gunfire, notifies HQ immediately and auto uplinks with waiting drone operators halfway around the world.. Operator radios to check if it's FF, gets clearance to engage.. Opens fire on targets, targets continue to attack.. Flips to Sync mode and take over two other trucks in the convoy and they join in attacking the targets by calculating their position relative to the main vehicle being controlled and the direction of the turret's targeting reticle.. Wall of 50 cal and they all start running.

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Brian S August 8, 2011 at 9:30 am

Hell, while they're at it, a couple of them could be drone platforms in the convoy. Automated fueling stations for automated drones that continually patrol the convoy for hostiles, issue verbal warnings, spot and highlight targets.. So instead of taking over using a camera, since targets could be spotted and plotted directly on an interactive map using the drones, the operator that is notified, gets clearance, selects targets and hits ok.. The drones and trucks communicate to target and destroy the hostiles.. Bonus: drones with guns?

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ewanm89 August 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm

That happens with the supply truck or supply aircraft too.

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Alex August 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm

So if they still use it in convoys how does one mount a convoy defence, yes there are remote operated turrets but eventualy they'll have jamming, and I hear that the IFF code for drones on the ground still need work.
comments?

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TMB August 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm

A mixture of robots and manned trucks in the convoy? Many of our convoys in Iraq were made up of armored humvees and civilian flatbeds or 18-wheelers.

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Jayson August 5, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Looks like the old Bombardier xterrain amphibian.

Nice vehicle, carry more IED disarm equipment, roving cover. Load it with explosives and run it into an ambush and big boom in their midst.

This has so much potential.

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Jeff M August 6, 2011 at 1:37 am

Tons of potential! These are just going to get ligher and more powerful.

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hsatpft August 5, 2011 at 1:36 pm

These are much smaller than trucks or even pickups but have better off-road performance. Robotic convoys will transplant this tech into bigger vehicles. Remote operated turrets aren't the future, they're the present, like the the turret on the German Puma & CROWS on HMMWV & Strykers. Within a convoy, you can use jam-proof microwave beam or laser communications.

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tribulationtime August 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm

When I look thats. 1- Crosscountry? I mean looks like that have not more capability than a hummer and the latter its right now more cheap. 2- Can you put it inside a Bradley/MRAP/helicopter and then go "on foot". 3 – How and where hide that while go in to clear a compound. 4 – Did not be a very obvious spot to shoot when soldiers get pinned down in an ambush scenary? and they are w/o their gear. Good try less weight load but this one haven´t tactical utility

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Alex August 5, 2011 at 2:43 pm

"it may be possible to use robo-trucks to resupply bases." Correct me if i'm wrong but the way the last bit of the article reads is that it would be a complete robot convoy, no squishies involved. Which means that for anti-jamming turret contols you need line of sight, this might be possible if we have comm relay blimps overhead or satilites, but Afganistan is rather hilly which can block signals (an urban enviroment can block as well). So again no remote turret control, and we're back to Johnny 5 in control and still with IFF issues.

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ajSpades August 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Yes, Afghanistan is hilly, but we also have dozens if not hundreds of ISR assets orbitting that at some point could be used for comm relays.
Technological solutions for technological problems. Start thinking doctrine.

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Alex August 8, 2011 at 9:52 am

Against the current threat it's a good idea, but what happens when somebody takes out the comms with an EMP, yes I know that they're "hardened" but but it will still play merry hell with the electronics. and it's hard to harden tech against EMI.

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Matt August 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm

On the robotic convoy idea. Possible to have the supply trucks umanned w/ a couple of M1151s for security? Remote turrets (CROWS) are already in use. Make them wireless, mount them on the umanned FMTV. Soldiers in the M1151 control the turrets on the umanned vehicals… Minimizes soldiers exposed to danger in a convoy, while keeping the benifits of have real people for defence/reaction.

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blight August 5, 2011 at 4:44 pm

"The SMSS can either lock on to and follow the 3D profile of a soldier"

So I guess that means we can do convoys by having a string of robotic vehicles follow a Bradley or a M1 from point A to point B? If you were crazy enough, one could hitch multiple robotic vehicles together to form a land train, and once connected simply connect them through fiberoptic lines to a a control vehicle that could operate multiple CROWS platforms. And by eliminating over-the-air remote control, it allows you to use EW systems with near impunity.

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Jeff M August 6, 2011 at 1:40 am

Long train isn't a crazy idea, especially if there are hydraulic actuators on the linkages, so that 2 or 3 in the chain could lift off the ground and bridge 50-foot gaps, like a long caterpillar.

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SJE August 7, 2011 at 12:06 pm

You wouldnt need to have any drivers. You could just have the entire squad remotely driven, with helo escort.

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bobbymike August 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Mount a mini gun on that beatch :)

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Prodozul August 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm

How fast does it go?

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Old MSgt August 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Cute, but TRACKS are best for off-road and this particular vehicle is ideally sized for band tracks of the sort already proven in use on construction and farming equipment. A tracked suspension is less complex and allows more internal hull space. Band track isn’t a PMCS horror.

I understand it’s a tech demonstrator, but the low hull floor means it’s mostly for flat terrain. Reducing soldier load is a GOOD thing and that idea is HIGHLY commendable.

Too bad the idea of airmobile firepower is dead. A tracked vehicle which can fit into a CH-47 is easy to do, and it could protect soldiers under armor AND carry their stuff AND carry an autocannon, a mortar, some Carl Gustavs, etc so our infantry wouldn’t be at parity with the enemy.

Don’t bring little guns to a gunfight when you can bring big guns with less effort!

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Riceball August 8, 2011 at 11:59 am

I think you may be on to something there, this thing would make for a great portable heavy weapons platform for the grunts. Instead of humping mortars of .50's broken down you could just set them up on MULE and have it ready in an instant. You could really augment a heavy weapons platoon or company with a few of these mounted with mini-guns and some 20 or 25mm auto cannons for extra fire power.

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PMI August 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Possible Mike Sparks sighting…talk about old skool!

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SJE August 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm

The downside to this vehicle is that you still need to supply fuel and parts, and it cannot handle very narrow paths: i.e. it will have problems in the toughest parts of Afghanistan. If you are going well into the boonies of Afghanistan, why not use a pack animal? The SPECOPS that overthrew the Taliban used horses to get around. The Taliban and allies still use pack animals.

Sure, mules etc are not perfect, and there are downsides. However, why do we have to go for the cool new technology if there is something already there to do the job?

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tiger December 25, 2011 at 1:41 am

mountain bikes.

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SJE August 6, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Regarding fuel: one of the biggest problems in Afghanistan is getting gasoline and avgas to all the military forces. The Pakistani's block the roads at times, and the Taliban target the convoys. The supply lines are a crucial weakness that the Taliban exploit. The US ships in water from thousands of miles away, transports food and gasoline, while the taliban eats and drinks locally, uses mules that run on grass, and burn wood, dung, or whatever they find.

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TMB August 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I remember discussing the MULE with with some Marine grunts I worked with and when they saw the sales pitch the first thing they said was "Great, one more thing I have to keep fueled." I don't know about the Army's official position on this thing, but most of the Marines I've talked to have said they're trying to lighten their load and not add more toys to the inventory.

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Jose August 7, 2011 at 10:19 am

Looks like they finally watched StarGate!

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SJE August 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Tru Dat! The defense contractors do seem to be run by people who spend too much time watching old SciFi shows instead of the people who actually do the fighting. Next, the vehicle will have lasers, and can only be serviced by sassy buxom women, but will be be kick ass for the next invasion of the insectoid people.

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Barton August 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Soon with the help of robots like this, drone aircraft and other robotics, the only casualties of war will be civilians. One giant step for mankind.

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Piku Yost August 7, 2011 at 11:41 pm

Why not load the SMSS with a large pack of Boston Dynamics "Big Dogs", UAV's and let more boys hand in the the rear with the–.. oh.. Gear moves itself now.. hmm.

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Old Artillerly Guy August 8, 2011 at 9:35 am

Prompts me to quote Donald Sutherland's line from "The Dirty Dozen" when he "fakes" an inspection of some airborne troops and comments…."Very pretty Colonel, but can they fight?" I echo "Bob's" comment of yesterday….who decides to buy this stuff?

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fireco52 December 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Your GPS antenna is going to get squashed when that thing rolls over

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Elijah December 25, 2011 at 3:32 am

Kilroy was here.

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blight August 5, 2011 at 4:38 pm

That would explain why MULE fell off my radar. What probably happened is that SMSS is a spin-off, or a spiral, or whatever they call it these days of the original six-wheeler transport MULE.

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Carnes August 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm

@Joe Schmoe You obviously did not watch any of the videos you linked. None of them are cargo carriers. None of them are steps to automating resupply missions. As far as i can tell, the US Army has zero interest in fielding robots unless it is to directly replace a dangerous non-combat job. The US Army however has shown interest in telepresence for combat jobs.

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Jason August 6, 2011 at 5:17 pm

The one from your first video seems to play a very limited compound defense role, the other two are teleoperated not autonomous robots. Having an advanced system like that be controlled remotely is relatively easy, having an autonomous system even doing easy tasks, like following a soldier or GPS path, is significantly more difficult.

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Game_Ender August 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

The US military has developed several system that are equal to or more advanced then the systems you listed there. Two examples:

CRUSHER: http://www.rec.ri.cmu.edu/projects/crusher/videos
APD (Next generation crusher): http://www.rec.ri.cmu.edu/projects/apd/videos/

Both of those vehicles can handle pretty much any terrain you throw at them and have sensor and autonomy package capable of navigating through completely unknown terrain to an objective without GPS waypoints.

Now these are a little large to be a mule type vehicle, but core technologies exists (navigation and perception). In reality I think all of these systems need several years of refinement until you can expect to follow foot soldiers and be anything more then a hindrance. It is hard to make a small vehicle that can handle rough terrain (close to what you can cover on foot), be stealthy, and still have a decent autonomy package.

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Joe Schmoe August 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm

AMSTAF is currently operating with South Korea securing the DMZ, it's fully autonomous. Guardium UGV is in operation in the Israeli army for a while now, it also can be fully autonomous. The IMI UGV can be used to carry cargo as well.

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guest August 6, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Not according to your videos. All the vehicles are listed as "unmanned". That simply means a man is not inside the vehicle driving it, he is somewhere else controlling the vehicle. The tag to the IMI UGV even says "A remote controlled UGV Unmanned Ground Vehicle". It's a big R/C car, that technology dates back to WWII, when the Germans used R/C for missiles.

This article is about a robotic jeep, not controlled by a human at all. This is far superior to anything you linked to.

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Joe Schmoe August 7, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I have no doubt that there are several more advanced vehicles in the pipeline several years off. What I am asking is why is the U.S. wasting money on another Lockheed project and trying to reinvent the wheel when there are already proven vehicles that will cost less and do the same job.

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Alex August 8, 2011 at 9:54 am

Money was supplied back when we had money.

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