SPRINGFIELD, Va. (Army News Service, March 7, 2016) -- "We should be thinking about having a robotic vanguard, particularly for maneuver formations," said Dr. Bob Sadowski. "There's no reason why the first contact with an enemy force should be with a man-platform, because it means that platform is at the greatest risk."
Sadowski, the Army's chief roboticist at U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, in Warren, Michigan, spoke at a robotics conference here, March 2.
A robot doesn't feel pain and suffering if it gets blown up, he continued. "We want it to be the bullet catcher who takes those rounds."
Besides taking the hit, robots could pinpoint and uncover the direction from which the enemy is firing, he added.
Realizing that the enemy is also developing these systems, he said. "So if we don't play in this space, we're not even going to understand what the enemy is doing."
WHERE WE'RE AT
Over the last 10 years, the Army has focused on logistical challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sadowski said. A lot of Soldiers were lost in convoys that encountered improvised explosive devices and the funding and research went into stopping that.
The Army's demonstration of driverless vehicles took place in May 2014 at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where a convoy consisting of seven different tactical vehicles drove completely unmanned at speeds exceeding 40 mph.
Once that technology matures and is fielded, the problem is that "if you replace 16 drivers with 16 autonomous vehicles, you've just lost 16 M-16s that the drivers would be carrying to protect the convoy," Sadowski said, "So you'd need to consider arming the autonomous vehicles, with a Soldier being the remote triggerman."
Possibly by the end of this year, that experiment at Savannah River will morph into an extended warfighter experiment, or, an Army warfighter assessment at Fort Bliss, Texas, he added.
WHERE WE'RE GOING
Today, the effort is still in logistics, but current thinking and doctrine is that robots should be more than logistics; they should be in the fight as well, he said.
The Marines tried this with a robot in Afghanistan, a mule-like device that followed a patrol dismounted, he said. It was rated for 1,000 pounds but the Marines loaded it up with 2,000. Then they complained it was too slow.
So in the future, Sadowski said perhaps robots need to be able to talk back and say, "Sir, I can't carry that."
Currently, testing of vehicles is being done on-road, but off-road is where Soldiers fight, he said.
Future robotic development may go to warp speed by using modeling and simulation, saving time and money by plugging scenarios into computers and testing vehicles in dirt, mud, snow, sand, rain and so on, he said.
To get a peek at the future, look at what's being done already, he said. The Army teamed with Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin to rig a UH-60D helicopter to fly autonomously carrying a robot as its payload. It flew without the aid of a pilot to its destination, dropped off the robot and flew back.
Had it had problems along the way, say with its engine, a sensor was programmed to look for possible landing sites along the way. As well, the robot payload, which was slingloaded, was balanced by the computer , which gave it even more stability in-flight than a pilot could have done, he said.
Robots will someday interact with other robots like that someday.
In Australia, an experiment will take place where an operator in the U.S. will remotely guide a robot through the outback with just a second of latency from control to action using satellite technology, he said. It will also be red-teamed, he added, meaning that operators will try to hack into it to take control away from the "friendly" operator.
So the way ahead is like that, with industry partners, academia, and multinational partners. The real payoff is when industry is working on a project that the Army can simply tweak a bit for its own usage, Sadowski said.
WHERE WE'VE BEEN
Robotics isn't new, said Sadowski, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering and is a retired Soldier himself -- a grad from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He's also had some 40 months of operational experience in robotics in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For example in the 1950s, the Army developed a robot called Little David, which was driven by remote control. It had a TV camera on it, a machine gun and even a flame thrower.
Other nations, including the Soviets, had similar systems.
The problem then was taking it off road, especially in tough terrain like Korea and Vietnam. So that's the problem that the Army's looking to solve currently. It will eventually get solved, but it will take some time, he said.
An early example of using unmanned aerial vehicles was demonstrated by the Japanese during World War II, Sadowski said. They tied incendiary bombs to balloons and fire-bombed the U.S. Northwest. The furthest a balloon got was Michigan, 10 miles from TARDEC.