WASHINGTON -- Infantry Soldiers often carry an array of supplies and gear that together can weigh anywhere from 60 to 120 pounds, said Capt. Erika Hanson, the assistant product manager for the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport.

But the SMET vehicle, which the Army expects to field in just under three years, "is designed to take the load off the Soldier," Hanson said. "Our directed requirement is to carry 1,000 pounds of the Soldier load."

That 1,000 pounds is not just for one Soldier, of course, but for an entire Infantry squad -- typically about nine Soldiers.

Late last month, during a "Close Combat Lethality Tech Day" in the courtyard of the Pentagon, Hanson had with her on display the contenders for the Army's SMET program: four small vehicles, each designed to follow along behind a squad of Infantry Soldiers and carry most or all their gear for them, so they can move to where they need to be without being exhausted upon arrival.

"I'm not an Infantry Soldier," Hanson said. "But I've carried a rucksack -- and I can tell you I can move a lot faster without out a rucksack on my back. Not having to carry this load will make the Soldier more mobile and more lethal in a deployed environment."

The four contender vehicles on display at the Pentagon were the MRZR-X system from Polaris Industries Inc., Applied Research Associates Inc. and Neya Systems LLC; the Multi-Utility Tactical Transport from General Dynamics Land Systems; the Hunter Wolf from HDT Global; and the RS2-H1 system from Howe and Howe Technologies. Each was loaded down with gear representative of what they would be expected to carry when one of them is actually fielded to the Army.

"Nine ruck sacks, six boxes of MREs and four water cans," Hanson said. "This is about the equivalent of what a long-range mission for a light Infantry unit would need to carry."

Hanson said that for actual testing and evaluation purposes, the simulated combat load also includes fuel cans and ammo cans as well, though these items weren't included in the display at the Pentagon.

These small vehicles, Hanson said, are expected to follow along with a squad of Soldiers as they walk to wherever it is they have been directed to go. The requirement for the vehicles is that they be able to travel up to 60 miles over the course of 72 hours, she said.

Three of the vehicles are "pivot steered," Hanson said, to make it easier for them to maneuver in off-road environments, so that they can follow Soldiers even when there isn't a trail.

One of the contenders for SMET has a steering wheel, with both a driver's seat and a passenger seat. So if a Soldier wanted to drive that vehicle, he could, Hanson said. Still, the Army requirement is that the SMET be able to operate unmanned, and all four vehicles provide that unmanned capability.

All four contenders include a small, simplistic kind of remote control that a Soldier can hand-carry to control the vehicle. One of those remotes was just a light-weight hand grip with a tiny thumb-controlled joystick on top. A Soldier on patrol could carry the light-weight controller at his side.

More advanced control options are also available for the SMET as well, Hanson said.

"All can be operated with an operator control unit," she said. "It's a tele-operation where you have a screen and you can operate the system non-line-of-site via the cameras on the system."

When Soldiers on patrol want the SMET to follow along with them, they can use the very simple controller that puts a low cognitive load on the Soldier. When they want the SMET to operate in locations where they won't be able to see it, they can use the more advanced controller with the video screen.

Hanson said the Army envisions Soldiers might one day use the SMET to do things besides carry a Soldier's bags.

"It's for use in operations where some of the payloads are like re-trans and recon payloads in the future," she said. "In that situation, it would be better for a Soldier at a distance to be able to tele-operate the SMET into position."

The "re-trans" mission, she said, would involve putting radio gear onto the SMET and then using a remote control to put the vehicle out at the farthest edge of where radio communications are able to reach. By doing so, she said, the SMET could then be part of extending that communications range farther onto the battlefield.

One of the vehicles even has an option for a Soldier to clip one end of a rope to his belt and the other end to the vehicle -- and then the vehicle will just follow him wherever he walks. That's the tethered "follow-me" option, Hanson said.

In addition to carrying gear for Soldiers, the SMET is also expected to provide electric power to Soldiers on patrol. She said while the vehicle is moving, for instance, it is required to provide 1 kilowatt of power, and when it's standing still, it must provide 3 kW.

That power, she said, could be piped into the Army's "Universal Battery Charger," which can charge a variety of batteries currently used in Soldier products. Vendors of the SMET have each been provided with a UBC so they can figure out how best to incorporate the device into their SMET submissions.

Hanson said the Army hopes that the SMET could include, in some cases, up to five UBCs on board to ensure that no Soldier in an Infantry squad is ever without mobile power.

NEXT STEP

In November 2017, the Army held a "fly-off" at Fort Benning, Georgia, where 10 contenders for the SMET competed with each other. Only the developers of the vehicles were involved in the fly-off.

"From those, we down-selected to these four, based on their performance," Hanson said.

To make its choice for the down-select, she said the Army looked at things like mobility and durability of the systems.

Now, the Army will do a technology demonstration to down-select to just one vehicle, from the remaining four. To do that, Hanson said, the Army will first provide copies of the competing SMET vehicles to two Army Infantry units, one at Fort Drum, New York, and one at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Additionally, Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will also get a set of the vehicles.

"Over the course of the tech demo, we'll be getting feedback from the Soldiers and the Marines on what systems best fill the need for the infantryman," she said.

The technology demonstration, she said, will last just one year. And when it's complete, feedback from Soldiers and Marines will be used to down-select to just one system that will then become an Army program of record.

"I think the best part of the program is the innovative approach the team is taking to field them to Soldiers before they select the program of record," Hanson said. "That way, it's the Soldier feedback that drives the requirement, not the other way around."

Hanson said she expects the program of record to begin in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020, after which the Army will go into low-rate initial production on the SMET. By the second or third quarter of FY 2021, she said, the first Army unit can expect to have the new vehicle fielded to them.

Hanson said the Army has set a base price of $100,000 for the SMET.