PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- As robotic technology advances and the Army seeks to anticipate and shape the future force on the battlefield, the pairing of manned and unmanned elements is seen as a way to increase the sphere of influence and lethal capabilities of mounted units without increasing manpower.

The Abrams Lethality Enabler (ALE) concept was demonstrated on Aug. 22 to show the value of robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) within an Armored Brigade Combat Team.

The concept was to determine if the crewman in the Abrams tank who serves as the ammunition loader could manage several robotic assets if he was freed up to do so with the use of a compact autoloader.

For purposes of the demo, those robotic assets were an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the Automatic Direct/Indirect fire Mortar (ADIM) system, integrated on an unmanned ground vehicle, and a robotic M58 Scout Vehicle.

The ALE concept has two enabling components: the autoloader and supervised autonomous technology. "Supervised autonomy is basically that you delegate tasks to that robot. It goes off and performs its missions," said Evan Finn, the ALE Project Officer with the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, at Picatinny Arsenal.

The ALE concept was developed with strong collaboration with other engineering centers at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM). More specifically the Tank Automotive, Research, Development Engineering Center (TARDEC) provided their expertise in roboticizing the HMMWV which allowed the ADIM system to be mobile. Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) provided all the support on the M58 Wolf Smoke Generator regarding its use, functionality, and all components required to use it for the demonstration. Finally, Army Research Labs' (ARL) was also there, to assess the cognitive impact on the tank crew during the maneuvers.

The ALE concept was demonstrated as a part of the Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy V Summit on Aug. 22 at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The purpose of the summit is for senior Army leaders to discuss the Army's next generation of combat vehicles. The goal of the demonstration was to determine the "art of the possible" for concept development and technology for the maneuver RAS, and the Army strategy for future force development.

In the demo, operating from the loader's position, an Abrams crew member demonstrated how he might extend reach and improve capabilities in several areas along the armaments "kill chain" (find, fix, track, target, engage and assess the effect on the target) using unmanned systems supervised from within the tank.

The first of those assets was an unmanned aerial vehicle, utilized to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to help find and track the target.

The next robotic vehicle was an unmanned, M58 Wolf Armored Personnel Carrier, that deployed smoke to conceal movement of an M1 Abrams tank section as it gained a position of advantage to fire on an enemy target.

The third roboticized vehicle was a Humvee with an Automatic Direct/Indirect fire Mortars (ADIM) system integrated in order to demonstrate an additional capability of providing suppressive fire, which allowed the M58 to move into position.

"If a robot needs to engage a target, the man is always in the loop," said Finn.

"In the past, if done by teleoperation, the cognitive load was prohibitive," Finn added, explaining the difficulties of controlling several robots relative to the command and control platform. "Now, that person can delegate tasks to the robotic vehicle which will then complete its mission in a supervised manner."

The Maneuver Center of Excellence will use the demonstration to operationalize the Army's Robotic and Autonomous Systems Strategy and inform future requirements for modernizing the maneuver force.

"One of the important things that the Army is doing right now has to deal with the Army's doctrine or the new philosophy and strategy for robotics and autonomous systems," said Col. Richard Hornstein, the military deputy at ARDEC. "This was kind of step one in terms of what's in the realm of the possible."

The ALE program at ARDEC is a way to advance armaments innovation as well as function as a testbed for experimental fire control platforms. Also, the warfighter would benefit from ALE by making first contact with the enemy while also increasing stand-off distance.

As new vehicles evolve and acquire more sophisticated capabilities, the role of armament systems will play an integral part of the overall combat mission.

"When we talk about combat vehicles, the only reason a vehicle becomes a combat vehicle is because of the armaments that are on it," Hornstein said. "Otherwise, it's just a tracked platform until you put the fire control, the ammunition, ammunition handling and the gun on the vehicle. Then it becomes a combat vehicle."

"So roboticzing a combat vehicle will require us to deal with the challenges of maintaining and sustaining an electronic or network system that provides sustained communications with a lethality package that might be on a robot," Hornstein said. "That's the role of ARDEC."

Although, the Abrams tank has been used as a testbed or platform, the ALE concept has always been described as platform agnostic. "The configuration is not locked in, it's mission dependent," Finn said.

Finn noted that ALE has been a multifaceted endeavor from its inception. Thus, it has involved collaboration from a wide array of members from the Army research community.

Hornstein said the Fort Benning demonstration provided some useful information for future development efforts.

"I think we will see, more and more, the development of not only the material solutions, but the doctrine, the leadership and the training that goes together to really institutionalize this capability within the Army."

Moving forward, ARDEC plans to continue to develop this concept to increase fire control capability and lethality for mounted units.