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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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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

USS ENTERPRISE August 13, 2013 at 10:33 pm

NO! Wall-E…….

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Lance August 14, 2013 at 12:13 am

Well I can agree that some UGVs can go the next war may not be in the Middle East and need IED killer robots. However I disagree that robots can replace anything except bomb disposal and light recon. Its dumb to thin Tanks and APC can be replaced by a robot anytime soon.

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hibeam August 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Airborne drones replace Tanks and APC just fine. We don't need to be on the ground in these sewer holes.

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Lance August 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm

No robots cannot replace a man vehicle they cannot see react and fight like a man can. Too many in America rely on technology. Man will fight at the head of war till the end.

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hibeam August 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Where are the men on the ground in North Wazirastan? I'm not seeing them. And yet we can pound those bearded lunatics pretty good whenever we care to.

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Ben August 14, 2013 at 4:32 pm

The problem with drone fought wars is that the HUMINT is significantly worse, almost always leading to huge civilian casualties. And yes, I feel the need to mention that that is a bad thing.

Putting boots on the ground allows us to make better informed decisions and actually keeps the gravity of war in play. Drones have an important place, but it should be mitigated to a support role.

majr0d August 17, 2013 at 12:32 am

Where are the guys on the ground?

Uh, where do you think the intel comes from?

As for effectiveness, how long have we been taking out targets in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen etc. Don't confuse dead bodies with progress or winning. That only works for the enemy fighting us.

jason charles August 14, 2013 at 3:33 am

Matt Cox, does "counter ordinance" work mean this robot can be used to fight city hall? Maybe we can have models to counter health ordinances, insurance ordinances, construction ordinances, etc. I would like to see at least some models designed to counter ordnance though, just in case the military needs them in the war zone.

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blight_ August 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Maybe it takes ordnance to counter ordinance?

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Dfens August 14, 2013 at 9:00 am

I thought the whole point of having millions of illegal aliens in this country was so they could do jobs that "Americans just won't do"? Next thing you know they'll want to make robots citizens, as long as they are programmed to vote for the right party.

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Mikey August 14, 2013 at 5:04 pm

They already have those Robots; they are called Democrats.

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EoD87 August 14, 2013 at 9:09 am

As an EOD tech I think it would be really nice to have one robot that had multiple tools that everyone knows how to operate. The more tools we have that can be used in unique situations or creative ones the better off we are. I think there are far to many variations at the moment.

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hibeam August 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Army to Shrink Robot Fleet expand Amputee wards.

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zak August 14, 2013 at 12:55 pm

This statement is what needs to be addressed: “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.”

2 years to get a requirements document? Ridiculous!

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LFK2 August 14, 2013 at 3:13 pm

As someone who "grabbed a pistol and a flashlight" in Vietnam I could not agree more with those who want robots to examine caves and bunkers–much less examine possible explosives. At some point someone has to get inside, but all initial work should be with remote devices.

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oblatt1 August 14, 2013 at 3:55 pm

This story is about the consolidation of the robot industry into one or two major players so that they have enough money to buy congressmen and don't have to compete. Most of the military industries are already monopolies and cartels the few that aren't are busy doing wheat they are doing here – preparing for the future.

These companies are making sure that when the cuts come they can make sure they do go under the knife. Instead veterans and servicemen's benefits will absorb the blow. At he same time the product quality can be reduced. Margins have to go up as the budgets are cut and the only way to do that is to charge more and deliver less.

Meanwhile what are the veterans and servicemen doing – supporting consolidation and saying how much sense it makes because robots are so cool.

Its practically a mercy killing.

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sapper October 23, 2013 at 12:25 pm

This has happened already, there is really only two companies that make the UGV systems that have deployed, The IRobot folks that make all the pack bot series and the folks that make the Talon series. I was a repair tech in Baghdad at the RSJPO robot shop on Camp Victory and trust me, they already have the market cornered for robotic systems.

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Da_Bunny August 14, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Nobody WANTED to grab a flashlight and pistol then go crawling into a tunnel. It was just another job that needed to be done. If you were small enough to fit, "lucky you".

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LFK2 August 15, 2013 at 4:36 pm

My uniform size was "small short". Says it all.

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top dog August 16, 2013 at 11:45 am

<"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.”>_______________________________I don't think the Army have anything to worry about, but it do look like the Marines might be going the way of the dodo bird in about thirty or forty years, if this commandant have anything to say about it.

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Albert Mudge August 16, 2013 at 1:37 pm

As a retired Army Vertran I can tell nobody wanted to be a Tunnel Rat in Vietnam. Also the bad guys have a lot different arsenal at hand. The US Military Need the Best Equipment .
After every war they do the same thing just keep cutting so we can not defend our self's.
Just look what Carter did.

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Snake Oil Baron August 17, 2013 at 5:05 pm

The only question will be which robots get purchased more: small ones which can drive into a cave with a small firearm attached, medium (fridge-sized) ones with some heavier weapons and armour on board or full tank sized ones. The first time a foreign nation starts fielding fridge-size, unmanned, rocket-launching buggies or even just remote controlled lawnmowers with jury rigged gun turrets, the resistance to robots in the military will vanish.

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Jubal Biggs September 30, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Some of the Israeli military guys in Hebron in the late 90s and early 2000s started bringing little remote control toy vehicles and rigging them up with a cheap webcam and connecting them to a ruggedized laptop so they could scout down little holes and corners in that urban rat's nest. I remember some of those early "systems". Now guys "won't do certain missions without their robot". It's amazing how fast things changed.

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