Put new technologies in the hands of soldiers, without any real rules as how to use them, and you’ll invariably get scenes like this.
Down at Ft. Benning late last month at the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment (AEWE), Spc. Roberto Alejandres set himself up on the roof of the police station at the McKenna Urban Training site, giving himself a clear look down the main road that cut through the middle of the cluster of buildings that make up “main street.” Setting up his tablet and his laptop, he was able to both operate an unmanned ground vehicle while monitoring a smaller robot his squad had piggybacked on top.
Got that? A robot-mounted robot.
The unmanned ground vehicle was the load-carrying Lockheed Martin-made Squad Mission Support System (SMSS), which was recently sent to Afghanistan for operational testing in dismounted infantry operations, and on this day its job was to carry around the Cougar 10, a small robot made by TiaLinx that uses sensors to detect human movements behind walls and closed doors. The problem with the Cougar 10, according to soldiers, was that it was just too slow and made “mapping” the inside of multiple buildings too time-consuming. So they picked it up, put it on the back of the faster SMSS, and off they went.
None of this was very stealthy—the SMSS is neither small nor subtle. The six-wheeled hauler is designed to carry about 600 lbs. of soldier gear, and is quite loud when the engine is cranking. Still, it performed the mission the soldiers wanted it to. With the Cougar 10 on its back, “it made our mission possible, a company cannot clear and occupy a town” by itself, one officer would later say.
As for the Cougar, it “looks” through walls by using its RF Scanner mounted on a lightweight arm while transmitting wideband signals to capture the reflections from targets inside buildings or behind barriers. Spc. Alejandres later explained that when the Cougar “sees” though a wall—its so sensitive that it can pick up breathing—it sends back an image that looks like a seismograph, with undulating lines that show the presence of humans.
The SMSS didn’t get such a glowing reception by other soldiers however, who said that they would be reluctant to take the vehicle on a dismounted patrol with them given its limitations in wooded or extreme terrain, the noise it makes, and the fact that it can’t be left alone if the unit has to disperse of move quickly. Staff Sgt. Robert Hollett said that he would rather lug his own gear and have a manned vehicle with a mounted weapon come up for resupply missions.
Still, the SMSS was pretty effective—with some big caveats—during a night ambush during the exercise, when it was mounted with a Lockheed Martin Gyrocam 9, which includes thermal and high-def color imaging, laser pointing, geo-location, and a laser range finder than can mark targets up to 20 km away. The SMSS was driven to the northernmost point of the ambush site and parked in the woods, protecting the unit’s flank. An iRobot PackBot was placed a few dozen meters down the trail to provide more coverage, and a single soldier was able to access feeds from both platforms on one laptop screen.
Standing silently in the dark with the Gyrocam’s thermals on, the unit was able to keep watch on its sector, with one problem. About once an hour they had to turn the SMSS on for about 5-10 minutes to keep the battery juiced, and when you’re sitting quietly in an ambush in the pitch black, that kind of noise is rather unwelcome. (The riflemen a little way away were communicating with one another and positioning their squads by texting on their Nett Warrior handhelds, and would later praise the system for keeping them in touch, silently.)
As it turns out, the opposition force walked into the ambush further down the line that night, but later, the opposition commander said that he had redirected some fighters toward the SMSS when he heard the engine kick in from hundreds of meters away—but they were unable to reach us before the exercise ended. So the SMSS was effective in keeping watch, but it appears that its stealthiness / battery time still needs a little work. Since the vehicle is currently in Afghanistan, we’ll be curious to hear what soldiers there think of it.