Saturday, October 10, 2009

Large Robot Vehicle Could See Trials In Afghanistan



Plans are under way to send two large autonomous robots to Afghanistan to see how well they operate as light infantry unit support vehicles. If the robots perform well, the U.S. Army is expected to issue a request for proposals (RFP) under its urgent-need acquisition program, which could fast-track a new generation of large robot vehicles into combat zones.

The Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) is on display at the Lockheed booth at the AUSA 2009 convention. It is a smaller, light infantry version of Lockheed's 3.5-ton Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment (MULE) robot vehicle for mounted/convoy operations. But while the SMSS may be the MULE's smaller cousin, it's not exactly petite, weighing 5,000 pounds and capable of lugging a 1,000-pound payload.

Don Nimblett, Lockheed Martin business development manager, combat maneuver systems, said the SMSS was aimed at the dismounted soldier, providing a squad-level support system that can carry the unit's supplies. It also has potential use as a Special Operations support vehicle. Two SMSSs can be carried in a CH-47 helicopter and one can be loaded into a Merlin helicopter.

Two SMSS vehicles have been supplied on short-term trials to Fort Benning, Ga.; first to take part in the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment, where new technologies are tested by soldiers, and again in August at the request of the Army's requirements division. Nimblett said they expect to see a report on how it fared in those tests by the end of October.

"We think it went well," he said. "One of the biggest comments we are getting now is 'why isn't this in Afghanistan?' " That could soon change if the Army succeeds in getting funds to buy two SMSS vehicles for Afghanistan operations. Nimblett said there was an aggressive schedule to make that happen by March.

Ideally, the Army will buy two new vehicles that will be purpose-built. Given the short timeline, however, the Army might have to buy two of Lockheed's existing seven vehicles. "We know that the Infantry Center has published a CPD [capabilities production document] and it's part of the acquisition process, and we are told that it's at the Army Department HQ. So if they sign it and approve it, that will establish it as an official requirement," Nimblett said.

Down the road, and after at least six months of in-theater testing, the Army could then issue an RFP for more such vehicles. Lockheed says it expects a competitive bid to follow, but as things stand now, there is no other autonomous vehicle of this size that has been through as much soldier evaluation as the SMSS.

The SMSS can be controlled in a number of ways. It can be manned and driven in a conventional way; it can be remotely operated via a joystick; it can be tele-operated from beyond line-of-sight via its own sensors; or it can go into true autonomous operation.

In autonomous operation, it can even be told to follow a particular soldier. It takes a picture of that soldier and then follows him wherever he goes. Nimblett said the company is also exploring the possibility of adding voice-recognition capability to the SMSS so it can obey voice commands.

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