Military investment in unmanned systems technology still strong

Unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) get most of the headlines in the press, where they are often called killer drones, but U.S. military planners are also looking to expand capabilities for unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), which have been instrumental in protecting soldiers from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This commitment is evidenced in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget request from the Department of Defense (DoD), as the U.S. military increases funding for key autonomous platforms in the request.

UAS budget highlights

“The Air Force budget for FY16 includes 29 MQ-9 Reaper UAS, a plus up of seven over the previously planned procurement of 22 aircraft,” said Chris Pehrson, Director of Strategic Development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) in an interview on page 20. “The Army budget includes 19 MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAS, which matches planned procurement for FY 2016. There is a plus up in the Army budget, however, to procure those 19 aircraft as Improved Gray Eagle. This is a more capable variant than the original Gray Eagle with over twice the payload capacity and almost twice the endurance.”

According the DoD, the FY 2016 program for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) RQ-4 Global Hawk funds the development and modification efforts for the Block 30, Block 40, ground stations, and Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion programs. Block 40 includes multiplatform radar technology for synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging and moving target detection. Funding for the MQ-4C Triton continues engineering and manufacturing development efforts and procures three Low Rate Initial Production systems.

“I think funding for military unmanned aircraft will continue to increase both for initial procurement and recapitalization of legacy aircraft,” Pehrson continued. “Unmanned aircraft are persistent, cost-effective platforms that will continue to be used for missions such as counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, as well as new surveillance applications and communications relays.”

To read about smaller UAS platforms such as the Fire Scout, Raven, and Puma, see the Special Report by Sally Cole on page 16.

UGV outlook

Investment for robotic ground systems is definitely trending upward, according to officials at iRobot and the U.S. Army.

“There is evidence of increased funding [for unmanned ground systems] that we can see within the DoD and in major programs,” said Tim Trainer, Vice President, Robotics Products International, iRobot Defense & Security business unit in an interview on page 26. “The military and Army have regrouped and taken a look at what they need for ground robotics. That vision had taken a pause and is now refocused. This is good news that has not been seen for the last couple years.”

Autonomous and semi-autonomous systems are expected to be fielded between 2019 and 2025, said Scott Davis, Army program executive officer for Combat Support and Combat Service Support, at a session of the Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference and Exhibition held this spring, according to an Army release by David Vergun.

Davis touted the Robotics Enhancement Program (REP) as a key way to manage sustainment and technology development in autonomous ground systems, according to the Army release. According the REP website (http://www.peocscss.army.mil/REP.html), the REP mission is to “identify and evaluate commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), government-off-the-shelf (GOTS), nondevelopmental items (NDI), robot systems, accessories, and/or robotic payloads that have the potential to enhance the overall combat effectiveness of the force.”

Twice a year, a group of colonels will gather to review battle lab test results of the robotic ground systems to determine if capabilities of new systems or components pan out, Davis said. If approved, they may become requirements.

Davis says in the release that the Army is looking for “incremental hardware and software enhancements to existing systems/chassis; sensor and payload upgrades; modularity; open architecture in IOP, or in- and out-processing software; standardization; miniaturization and light weight; and intelligent behavior.” Elaborating more on the intelligent behavior, Davis referred to a bird dog – “a small ground robot that can see, smell, hear, and fetch. It would also have to be simple enough for a soldier to use, as his cognitive focus would need to be on mission, not the tooling for that mission.”

Programs now under evaluation by Davis and his team include the ManTransportable Robotics System Mark II (explosives ordnance disposal); the Husky Mounted Detection System, which has a deep detection system and a ground-penetrating radar; the Route Clearance and Interrogation System, which will be used by squads to transport gear and augment convoys in semi-autonomous mode; and the Common Robotic System-Individual (CRS-I), which will be carried by soldiers and not exceed 25 pounds (about 15 pounds for the platform, five for the controller, and five for the payload.)

Some new programs will be joint efforts “with the Army and Marine Corps generally, while some will go DoD-wide and involve the Navy and Air Force as well. Special Operations Forces (SOF) will also have unique opportunities that will often be more customized,” said iRobot’s Trainer in the interview.