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Marines' new unmanned vehicle could patrol bases in Afghanistan

Robot sentry proves its mettle in 29 Palms field test

Feb. 23, 2014 - 07:15PM   |  
SPAWAR system provides security for Marines
The Mobile Detection Assessment Response System surveys the area around the expeditionary airfield at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Feb. 6. (Cpl. D.J. Wu / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps is experimenting with a new unmanned ground vehicle that can patrol installations and detect intruders or potential enemy forces nearly a mile away.

The Mobile Detection Assessment Response System, or MDARS, was used in late January to successfully secure an air base during the latest Integrated Training Exercise — the final predeployment workup all units conduct at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. The vehicle could be headed to Afghanistan, according to its developers, although concrete plans have not been made.

A field demonstration of MDARS began Jan. 30 at the combat center’s Camp Wilson. The vehicle successfully aided members of Marine Aircraft Group 13 and Marine Wing Support Squadron 374 to patrol the area immediately surrounding their airfield as a mock enemy force tried to probe their defenses.

During the first night, the vehicle was autonomously navigating around the base — by heading to predetermined waypoints — when guards in one tower detected two potential enemy soldiers, said Pat Culliton, the MDARS program manager with San Diego-based Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.

“We were operating between two towers and one of the towers reported some activity,” Culliton said. “From the operator control station you just click a button and say go there.”

MDARS immediately navigated to the area of suspected enemy activity.

“It put itself in the mode where the radar was going, cameras were going — then it picked up on infrared two people. We put the floodlight on them and they dispersed very quickly,” Culliton said.

The highly adaptable vehicle, which was developed under the sponsorship of the Army’s Product Manager Force Protection Systems at Ft. Belvoir, Va., has an array of advanced sensors. They include lasers for navigation, daylight and infrared cameras for surveillance and a radar with nearly a one-mile range, all affixed to a Polaris Military Diesel Crew off-road vehicle. It also has a 10,000 candle power spotlight and could be equipped with audio warning devices, non-lethal munitions or even light weapons, Culliton said.

The vehicle can be set to roam free, navigate to predetermined waypoints, or in the case of the two potential enemy detected the first night, scrambled to an area of interest to investigate further.

By the second night of demonstrations, Cullinton and his team had the vehicle’s sensors tuned up and operating optimally.

“Four red-cell folks popped up immediately,” he said. “They didn’t know we were there. We put the robot at the tower where we thought they were heading and tracked them up to the tower. We kept tracking them so a [quick reaction force] could pick them up.”

By using the the longer crew chassis, SPAWAR developers were also able to keep the front driver’s seat open so the vehicle can be driven by a Marine if needed. That is particularly useful when transporting it for maintenance. The longer chassis also means the vehicle’s rear cargo area has been left empty for future upgrades that Colliton said could include a smaller robot that can maneuver into places MDARS can’t fit, or even a small unmanned “quadcopter.”

MDARS developers hope to incorporate the vehicle into the next Weapons and Tactics Instructor course at the center in April.

Culliton and his developers want to put the vehicles in new environments to gain a better understanding of Marine operations and how the vehicle, which was designed for fixed installation security, can be tweaked for expeditionary operations.

Culliton and his staff have already briefed Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan the I Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general and have also received interest from Maj. Gen. Thomas Murray, the commanding general of Training and Education Command.

“General Toolan indicated he may be able to augment some things [in Afghanistan] while the drawdown happens,” Culliton said. “It might make sense for robots to come over and help with security.”

There is no hard requirement yet, however, so if, how and where the Marine Corps will use this platform remains speculative.

The Army had plans to deploy several of the vehicles to Afghanistan to aid at entry control points where they could alert soldiers of potential threats before they arrive at checkpoints. But, those plans were canceled as the drawdown got underway. Army officials told SPAWAR they did not want to ship more gear to Afghanistan as they worked to ship what is there home.

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