Smart Robotic Targets on the Move

July 15, 2011
By Rachel Eisenhower, SIGNAL Connections

A new training system featuring armored autonomous robots could help the U.S. Marine Corps prepare snipers to face human enemies in battle. The smart mobile targets use Segway platforms to mimic human motion and behavior—even running for cover when a fellow robot gets hit.

The Marine Corps demonstrated the Robotic Moving Target System (R-MTS) at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, in June. The event marked the final testing and evaluation phase for the training tool developed by Australia-based Marathon Targets. The system is part of a $50 million foreign comparative test project contract awarded by the Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) Program Manager for Training Systems in Orlando, Florida.

According to Lt. Col. Walt Yates, USMC, assistant program manager of range training aids, devices and simulators, MCSC, the mobile targets are 3-D representations of average-size humans with armor plating that can withstand hundreds of bullets. Two variations of the system exist: the two-wheeled T20 and the four-wheeled T40, which can handle off-road terrain.

Using the Segway Robotic Mobility Platform, the targets move in any direction and pivot from a full frontal view to a narrow profile. “The enemy very rarely is courteous enough to stand still,” remarks Col. Yates, and the robots provide a more realistic target than the typical black silhouette on paper. In addition, the system allows snipers to engage in judgment training when only one robot represents an enemy. Trainees must exhibit quick decision-making skills as they decide if and when to take hostile action.

The robot targets move autonomously, explains Col. Yates, and can map out obstacles and chart their own paths. In addition, the system reacts to live fire. “When one target is fired upon and hit, the others will run and seek cover,” states the colonel. These unique features are what caused the Marines to embark on the foreign comparative test, because they did not find anything domestically that gave them the same capabilities, he adds.

Ultimately, the goal of the R-MTS is to train Marines in the most realistic conditions possible. Teaching tools need to achieve the highest level of realism and fidelity to close the gap between what happens in training and in battle, says Col. Yates. “A sniper’s bullet can change the course of history, and we would much rather it be our sniper than the enemy’s.”

Alex Brooks, chief executive officer, Marathon Targets, says he agrees that traditional live-fire training tools are not realistic enough to provide real-world training. He asserts that many shooters have a false sense of confidence in their marksmanship because of inadequate preparation. Trainees get an expert ranking on predictable targets and then struggle with moving targets in the field. Brooks hopes the R-MTS solves this issue and improves marksmanship and team coordination.

While the Marines have not yet made a procurement decision, they will receive a small suite of eight training robots in September to continue their research. If it proves to be a worthwhile investment, Col. Yates says the R-MTS system could “very well open the door to using robotics in training in many other applications.” The system’s primary users will likely be advanced shooters already proficient in hitting predictable moving targets.