FORT HOOD, TEXAS—Garryowen Soldiers from the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry are providing the U.S. Army with feedback to define the future of the Army’s ground combat robotic programs during the second Soldier Operational Experiment (SOE) here. The Army’s largest ground robotic experiment in history has pushed both equipment and Soldiers to their limits in the relentless Texas heat and dusty conditions.
The goal of the Phase II Manned Unmanned-Teaming (MUM-T) SOE is to collect data and Soldier feedback that ultimately will enable Army senior leaders to make future acquisition decisions for Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCV) and their integration into future formations. This SOE is the culmination of three years’ worth of workshops and both live and virtual experiments.
During the past four weeks Garryowen Soldiers have conducted both new equipment training and situational exercises to assess capabilities of RCV platforms and their control vehicles, known as Mission Enabling Technology Demonstrators (MET-D). Using these vehicles, Soldiers are engaging in platoon and troop-level reconnaissance and security tasks against a “near peer” Opposing Force (OPFOR), in this case 3rd Cavalry Regiment Soldiers.
Providing Soldiers with RCV prototypes and employing them in harsh operating conditions enables the Army to collect their critical feedback and learn what it needs to fix.
“Simply stated, this SOE is designed to expose the vulnerabilities of the current prototypes so the Army can fix the problems before integrating the final version into the force as soon as 2028,” said Maj. Cory Wallace, Robotic Requirements Lead with the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team. “The RCV developmental approach boils down to the following: Soldiers talk, we listen, and we fix,” Wallace said.
The SOE will facilitate the collection of quantitative and qualitative data for performance and operational evaluation, said Eric Hahka, Experimental Prototyping MET-D Lead, managing the Phase II experiment for U.S. Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC).
“Soldier feedback will be the foundation to answer operational and technical learning objectives that will ultimately enable Army senior leaders to make acquisition decisions for both variants' programs of record,” Hahka said.
The Phase I SOE, held in the summer of 2020 at Fort Carson, Colorado, focused on section and platoon reconnaissance operations. Soldiers also evaluated several emerging technologies and provided feedback on the contemporary employment techniques and best practices.
What Phase 1 told the Army is MUM-T can enhance a formation’s tactical reach and effectiveness after the following three critical technologies mature: line-of-sight or non line-of-sight assured control (dedicated data link), stabilized sensing and weapon systems, and autonomous movement. The Army also learned that a two-person manned fighting vehicle crew can shoot, move, and communicate, but technology must reduce the crew’s cognitive burden during extended duration operations.
Garryowen Soldiers are using feedback from the first experiment as a foundation for telling the Army what needs to happen to the RCV next and how to best use them.
“What I’m now hearing from Soldiers is they’re starting to feel comfortable with using these robots to do recon missions in risky areas where they’re not putting Soldiers’ lives in danger,” said Mandel Machart, data network tech specialist with GVSC’s Vehicle Electronic Architecture, who is in charge with maintaining communications network reliability with the robotic systems.
“They’re talking about how they could reduce crew loads, eliminating the number of guys they carry on missions, by using just one robot, and delegating the freed-up crews to other less dangerous tasks,” Machart said.
The Phase II SOE involves three times the number of vehicles used in the first experiment with six total METDs and 12 RCV prototypes integrated into four different platoons. The Phase II robotic vehicle fleet includes both RCV light and medium prototypes as well as an unmanned decisive lethality demonstrator.
“Soldier engagements can help pinpoint end-user issues that may otherwise be overlooked and confirm or deny the need for development teams to address real or perceived technological challenges,” Wallace said. “To date, Soldier feedback has defined every single vehicle requirement. Now, they are refining our current understanding of what the RCV is and is not,” Wallace said, emphasizing, “If we fail to build something useful and reliable, it will rarely leave the motor pool.”
Soldier touchpoints inform requirements, facilitate rapid iteration of prototypes, and ensure the Army is meeting Soldiers’ tactical and operational needs.
“Soldiers feedback in the development process in regular and meaningful ways provides valuable input to industry representatives, testers, researchers and acquisition experts on the capabilities they need to fight and win,” Wallace said.
Robotic vehicles involved in Phase II feature GVSC’s Robotic Technology Kernel (RTK), the Army’s standard library of modular software packages that can be tailored to meet the needs of autonomous ground platforms. Autonomy—at various levels—offers great opportunity for different platforms to perform different tasks that improve Soldier safety and reduce cognitive burdens.
“GVSC engineers have sped up the development cycle for its core Robotic Technology Kernel quickly, and as soon as the SOE-operated vehicles are available to continue their upgrades, they’ll see these improvements, too,” said Kevin Mills, GVSC deputy executive director for Ground Vehicle Intelligent Systems.
“This is a testament to the rapidly developing capabilities of Army ground vehicle autonomy, the value of a DevSecOps process that, once employed, can rapidly upgrade the autonomy-enabled fielded vehicles to the latest software versions, and the need to integrate into the Army’s safety testing process digital testing and validation,” Mills said.
The Army is currently migrating from an initial solution based on the Automated Ground Resupply autonomy stack toward a Modular Open System Architecture (MOSA) compliant autonomy stack, the Robotic Technology Kernel.
“This MOSA approach for autonomy enables the Army to leverage the capabilities of multiple industry partners (both traditional and non-traditional) at a module level in order to develop an integrated autonomous capability with applicability to multiple ground platforms,” Mills said.
As this historic event draws to a close, GVSC will begin to analyze the feedback collected over the past five weeks and determine what steps should be taken to provide the next group of Soldiers better prototype versions than what Garryowen has employed during this experiment.
“The RCV is a bold and revolutionary component of the Army’s modernization and as such, experiments such as these are imperative to solving the hard problems now so future Soldiers have the most reliable and effective platforms,” Wallace said. “Based on what Phase II has demonstrated, the Army is well on its way to leveraging the best technology to fight and win in the most challenging future environments.”