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Army to Shrink Robot Fleet

by Matt Cox on August 13, 2013

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The U.S. Army plans to trash nearly half of its small robotic vehicle fleet and develop a new family of unmanned ground vehicles capable of multiple missions across services.

Over the past 10 years of war, soldiers have come to rely on small, back-pack sized UGVs for searching cramped, shadowy caves and inspecting suspected enemy bombs.

“There are tasks that soldiers right now won’t do without their robot,” Army Lt. Col. Stuart Hatfield, branch chief of Soldier Systems and Unmanned Ground Systems for Army G8, told an audience at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International 2013 conference. “Think cave and tunnel reconnaissance. A soldier doesn’t want to grab the pistol and flashlight like they did back in Vietnam and dive down in there and be a tunnel rat.”

Army equipment officials have poured about $730 million into this new battlefield tool. But as the war draws to an end, the service is now left with a hodgepodge of systems that share very little parts commonality.

Program officials plan to reset about 2,700 UGVs, while it “divests” of 2,469 of the older systems that have outlived their service life, Hatfield said.

The Marine Corps is taking similar steps such as doing away with a “Marine Corp unique engineer squad robot” and working with the Army on a common robotic platform for counter explosive ordinance disposal work, said Marine Lt. Col. Michael Hixson, the combat engineer chief information officer for the Marine Corps’ Unmanned Ground Systems.

The Marines recently stood up a new crisis-response unit made up of a reinforced company with a squad of engineer support, Hixson said.

“It’s now in Spain and receiving operational tasks,” Hixson said. “If the commandant had his way, he would have multiple companies throughout the world.”

Hixson described this company landing team as “a fly-way force. They need something extremely light” when comes to UGVs.
Both the Army and the Marine Corps want UGVs with a common chassis with modular mission payloads, Hatfield said.

“You have the same chassis when you put a reconnaissance payload on there to support the maneuver forces; then you pull that off and put a chemical sensor on there or a an engineer payload … modularity is the goal,” Hatfield said.

The services are also looking for a common controller as well alternatives to GPS navigation.

One of the hurdles this new focus on UGV commonality faces is it will have to compete for limited defense dollars, Hatfield said. This is a sobering shift from the past decade when organizations such as the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force relied on Overseas Contingency Operations funding to buy UGVs.

“Now that all that goes away… we have to get back to programs of record,” Hatfield said. “It takes two years to get a requirement done and I have to have a requirement well on its way to approval before it can compete for funding in a budget we build two years out – it’s a slow laborious process.”

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