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Marine Corps to develop armed, 'intuitive' battle bots for infantry units

Oct. 8, 2013 - 05:45PM   |  
Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System is capable of carrying lethal and nonlethal weapons, including 40mm grenade launchers and an M240B medium machine gun.
Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System is capable of carrying lethal and nonlethal weapons, including 40mm grenade launchers and an M240B medium machine gun. (QinetiQ North America)
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Officials at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory are testing new technology that will aid in the creation of a robotic squad member that could one day roll into combat armed to the teeth.

Key to the new project is a more intuitive way for squad leaders to control robots. The lab is turning to industry for the solution and has recently invited companies to showcase their best hands-free technology.

“Instead of adding the burden of a hand-controller, this effort aims to facilitate interaction similar to the way Marines interact in a squad, using methods such as gestures, voice commands and touch to more intuitively supervise the system,” reads a request to industry published Sept. 23 on “These robots will operate in short range, typically 3-5 meters from other squad members.”

That would free squad leaders from the burden of a hands-on controller and allow them to focus on other tasks, said Capt. James Pineiro, the Ground Combat Element branch head within the lab’s Science and Technology Division.

The technology would likely be incorporated into the lab’s Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. MAARS, produced by QinetiQ North America, is a small tracked robot capable of carrying a variety of lethal and nonlethal weapons, including 40mm grenade launchers and an M240B medium machine gun. It also has robust sensors and surveillance capabilities.

MCWL invited industry representatives to the 2013 Intuitive Robotics Operator Control Challenge to be held Nov. 4-8 at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, Ind.

The challenge will include three tests. The command recognition challenge will focus on ensuring robots can reliably and repeatedly recognize and execute commands in combat conditions over distance. That could include how well they understand yelled commands from another room, or around a corner.

The mission execution challenge will assess a robot’s ability to execute a simple task. “The intent is to give the robot a basic task, like take a position over by that box or tree,” Pineiro said. “Can the robot execute the mission with little interaction from the controller while navigating obstacles?”

The third and final challenge will assess how well a robot can move in concert with a Marine without using any kind of wearable transmitter. It will be expected to move more like Marines, perhaps taking a different path than the squad member giving it commands.

The integration of a hands-free controlling method on a robot like MAARS could have significant battlefield implications. It could reduce Marines’ weight burden by shouldering heavy weapons systems like machine guns. It could even allow heavier weapons — perhaps too large for a Marine to carry — to be used at the squad level, Pineiro said.

Equally important, its sensors could improve situational awareness. It could be sent forward into an intersection, a room, or onto a hilltop to survey the battlefield.

While the priority is ground combat, Pineiro said, the control technology could be integrated into a variety of platforms for other missions, including casualty evacuation. It would potentially be compatible with systems the lab is already experimenting with, including the Legged Squadron Support System commonly known as Big Dog. Big Dog, a four-legged robot capable of carrying about 400 pounds, is designed to carry packs or supplies.

It also could be integrated with the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle that could also carry casualties. It is unclear when the technology could be ready for combat, Pineiro said, but a prototype could be ready in a few years.

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