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Load-Carrying Robot Deploys to Afghanistan

January 23, 2012
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The U.S. Army deployed four large unmanned ground systems to Afghanistan earlier this month to assess their ability to lighten the load for combat troops.  

The 11-foot-long Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) carries more than a half-ton of a squad’s equipment through tough terrain. A fully loaded system can be transported aboard CH-47 or CH-53 helicopters. It has a 125-mile range and three control options—supervised autonomy, tele-operation or manually driven. The system’s sensor suite allows it to lock on and follow any person by recognizing the digital 3-D profile. It also can navigate terrain on its own by following a trail of Global Positioning System way points, according to Lockheed Martin, which makes the system. The system also could potentially carry reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition equipment.

It was chosen for deployment last year as the winner of the Army-sponsored Project Workhorse Unmanned Ground Vehicle competition. It is also considered one of several possible candidates for the Army’s Squad Mission Equipment Transport System, for which the service is currently working on a requirements document, says Don Sando, director of capabilities development and integration for the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Georgia.

The plan is for soldiers in theater to assess the performance of the four SMSS vehicles for three or four months. “We tried to get it to them earlier, but the bottom line is that it’s in theater now. We’re training the unit that is going to be operating the system, and we’ll get some feedback over the next several weeks,” Sando says. “We will learn from the experience. We can think about what we might ask a robotic systems to do, but when you give it to soldiers—especially soldiers in harm’s way—they can be very creative.” 

The Army is currently staffing a requirements document for the Squad Mission Equipment Transport System, Sando reports. He adds that other systems are also considered potential candidates, and he specifically mentions the Carry-all Mechanized Equipment Landrover  (CaMEL) developed by Northrop Grumman. Over time, the service hopes to deploy other systems to Afghanistan for in-theater assessments, he says.

CaMEL is capable of being armed with a 50-caliber machine gun, but for now at least, the Army has placed the fielding of armed ground vehicles low on its priority list. The service last year abandoned efforts to develop the Multi-Mission Unmanned Ground System (MMUS), one variant of which could be armed. “What drove MMUS was the need for a common platform that could carry multiple payloads. Sometimes when you do that, you over-complicate it, you over-engineer it, and you price yourself out of business,” Sando says. 

He stresses, however, that the service has not abandoned the armed robot concept. “The urgency is not there.  It doesn’t mean we’re not evaluating it. It doesn’t mean we’re not moving forward on it. It just means it’s not at the top of our priority list right now,” he emphasizes.