Testing Unmanned Technologies

September 15, 2011
By George I. Seffers, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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A February exercise will test concept of networking unmanned systems.

 The U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Quantico, Virginia, is planning the biggest evaluation yet of its concept for networking unmanned platforms—including sensors, aircraft and ground vehicles—and controlling them with a Common Robotic Controller (CRC). Initiated in late 2009, the Tactical Networked Sensor Suite (TNS2) concept has been evaluated three times, during which the service separately studied unmanned aircraft, sensors and ground vehicles. In February, the Marines will try to connect the myriad pieces, says Ronald Colbow, TNS2 program manager.

TNS2 is a concept demonstration designed to establish a networked architecture for unmanned and autonomous sensors. It also will demonstrate sensor cueing and offer the user a choice of multiple sensors that can quickly and easily be chosen, configured and deployed using the CRC. It is designed for company-, platoon- and squad-level operations.

The CRC comprises an operator interface and communication, computer and subsystems. It will provide a common command and control platform with an open architecture and standardized interface for a variety of platforms, including the Raven and Wasp unmanned aircraft, Dragon Runner and the Modular Advanced Arms Robotic System (MAARS), as well as an array of hand-emplaced sensors. “We have one backpack controller that will do all of the command and control of our unmanned air vehicles and for our ground sensors. And we’re also looking at MAARS to see if an armed robot would be a force multiplier for the Marines,” Colbow explains. MAARS can be armed with either lethal or nonlethal weaponry, including a dazzling eye-safe laser, a 40 mm grenade launcher or an M240B medium machine gun.

The Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS), a wheeled transport vehicle capable of both manned and unmanned operations, is also being assessed under the TNS2 concept and will likely be included in the February exercise, which will probably be held at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

GUSS is designed to act as a resupply vehicle, to carry equipment for a 13-man squad or to transport casualties. “We’re testing the concept to see if we can prove the capability of an unmanned system to work with an infantry squad,” Colbow says. “It has multiple modes of operation. You can manually drive it, or it can be in different modes of autonomy. It can be in follow-me mode where one of the Marines would carry the controller, and it would go wherever he walks. It could either follow directly in the Marine’s footsteps, or it could operate in a predetermined bubble around the Marine and find its own way. Or, they could preprogram the mission and send it out on its own.”

The system also includes a variety of electro-optical and infrared sensors, night vision and zoom lenses so that it can look for potential threats, Colbow adds.

The current version of GUSS, which is being used in the evaluation exercises, has a gas-powered engine, which Colbow says the Marines don’t like because it is too noisy. “We’re looking in the future at maybe using a hybrid so that when they need to be stealthy, they can switch to electric mode, and when it’s on the road and noise isn’t a factor, it can be in diesel mode, charging batteries and stuff like that,” he says.

In previous exercises, troops gave the vehicle high marks for lightening their load and for evacuating casualties, Colbow asserts. In one particular scenario, for example, a squad needed to get a casualty to a landing zone for evacuation, but because of the raging battle, the location for the landing zone kept changing. A mission that would have taken an hour or more was completed in about 20 minutes using GUSS. In addition, rather than having to take turns carrying the casualty and providing force protection, most of the squad members were able to continue their duties with guns ready, while one drove the casualty and another provided force protection.

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