WARREN, Mich. -- The U.S. Army last week awarded contracts to Endeavor Robotics located in Chelmsford, Mass., and QinetiQ North America located in Waltham, Mass., for the next phase of the Common Robotic System (Individual) program-or "CRS(I)." With this award, the Army will begin a competition expected to last approximately 10 months to inform which contractor will be selected for the low rate initial production phase award.

CRS(I) is the Army's small sized ground robot, designed to be Soldier back-packable and remotely operated, giving Soldiers the ability to perform various missions at a safe standoff distance from potentially hazardous threats. The system consists of a Universal Controller (UC), a suite of changeable payloads, and a common mobility platform or chassis. Collectively, CRS(I) tools will significantly improve reliability, interoperability, and adaptability over current systems.

The Common Robotic System - Individual is the second of three unmanned robotic programs intended to formalize the Army's ground robotic portfolio into discrete programs of record. CRS(I) will join the medium-sized (~150 lbs.) Man Transportable Robotic System Increment II, which was awarded last fall, and will precede the Common Robotic System - Heavy (~700 lbs.).

At an average weight of just 25 lbs., CRS(I) is the smallest of the three programs, each of which are designed to provide a common chassis within their respective weight classes and to improve sustainment, maintenance, training, and especially the speed at which Soldiers can incorporate new technology. The Army expects to field these three programs over the next several years, enabling it to phase out some 7,000 unique systems purchased to meet urgent needs in recent conflicts.

"What is really exciting is that we are seeing artist renderings turn into tangible systems in the hands of Soldiers, and that is a great thing," said Bryan McVeigh, the Army's project manager for Force Projection. "During recent contingencies we quickly bought systems to give Soldiers the tools they needed, but often that meant purchasing unique systems that couldn't change to different missions; had expensive, proprietary software; and required more resources for training and maintenance. Now we are making real progress toward a common family that will help Soldiers do more while learning and carrying less-and that makes a big difference."

The ability to give Soldiers new capabilities at the pace of technology owes primarily to the new Interoperability Profile, or "IOP," on which all three robotic programs of record are based. The IOP sets a standard for how robots, controllers, and payloads interact. Like apps on a smartphone, the IOP, which was developed with heavy industry collaboration, makes it much easier for payloads to change and adapt with technology, rather than having to replace the entire platform. By procuring common platforms with defined standards, the Army will also be able to focus resources on quickly emerging payload technologies, enabling Soldiers to access new technology faster and buy more of what they really need.

The CRS(I) program also includes the requirement for a common controller, based on the same IOP, that is designed to give Soldiers the ability to operate multiple ground or air systems from a single device. Not only will the common controller mean less for Soldiers to carry, but it will also improve operational flexibility, decrease training requirements, and reduce the Soldiers' cognitive load.

"This is a capability our Soldiers absolutely need," said Maj. Wes Brown, the chief of Lightweight Robotics at the Maneuver Center of Excellence. "When we think about the Army's Robotic and Autonomous Systems Strategy, we know we have to lighten Soldiers' loads-both physically and cognitively. When Soldiers have to train on fewer systems, and when those systems can plug-and-play different mission payloads, it gives our Soldiers more flexibility and a bigger advantage."

Consistent with the planned award schedule, production should begin in the second quarter of fiscal year 2019 with the first unit equipped during the second quarter of fiscal year 2020. When complete, the Army expects to field 3,258 systems to Infantry, Engineer, Explosive Ordnance Demolition, and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear- (CBRN) related units.

The U.S. Army's Program Executive Office, Combat Support & Combat Service Support, headquartered here, oversees the Project Management Office, Force Projection Systems, including robotic and autonomous systems. With approximately 150 programs in active management and an annual budget of more than $3 billion, PEO CS&CSS is responsible for managing the design, development, and delivery of the majority of equipment across the Army's Transportation, Engineer, Quartermaster, and Sustainment portfolios.