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The Packable Robot: An Essential Part of the Infantry Squad

The technology being developed for Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV’s) may be less eye-catching than Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) but they are, nonetheless, progressively becoming an integral part of dismounted ground operations amongst the World’s leading militaries.

This evolution is set to continue due to three key factors:

  1. UGVs act as a force multiplier, increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of a small unit of soldiers on any given mission;
  2. UGVs enhance the reach of dismounted operations into previously difficult to access locations;
  3. UGVs reduce casualties by reducing the dismounted soldier’s exposure to hazardous situations.

Operations in built-up areas and complex terrain, such as cave complexes, have historically forced military planners to accept higher levels of risk; similarly, counter-Insurgency campaigns in recent years have sought to ‘remove the soldier’ from these multi-layered threat environments. UGVs are therefore seen to present a unique opportunity to put physical distance between a threat and soldiers – minimizing casualties and providing a stand-off intelligence gathering capability. However, operations in built up areas can severely limit and hamper the mobility of larger UGVs – an echo of the historical limitations on the use of armored vehicles in such environments. Accordingly, smaller size UGVs such as the ‘packable robot’ are now seen as potentially game-changing in providing critical support for surveillance and target acquisition in ground-based operations.

 Dragon Runner 10 Micro Unmanned Ground Robot

Innovation and miniaturization of hardware and sensors, with higher levels of on-board data processing, are driving advances that can deliver smaller UGVs, perfectly equipped to integrate with the fast pace of modern-day operations, without over-burdening the dismounted soldier or hampering his tactical movement.  As a robust and reliable mobile platform, equipped with different sensors and payloads, they can enable operations where earlier generations of robots simply lacked the mobility or endurance. Resistant to dust, water and impact shocks, the packable robot can work in a variety of harsh environments. The mission set is broad including searching the undersides of vehicles for IEDs; locating booby traps and hidden triggering devices; reconnoitering occupied building and structures – all accomplished while relaying real-time video, audio and sensor data to the operator at a safe distance.

According to the new market research report on “Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) Market – Global Forecast to 2025”, published by MarketsandMarkets™, the Unmanned Ground Vehicles Market is projected to grow from USD 2.7 billion in 2018 to USD 7.0 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 14.81% from 2018 to 2025. Funds for acquiring this type of equipment are, therefore, increasingly being allocated for short and medium-term military programmes, often commencing with experimentation and force development programmes. As such, the U.S. Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) strategy aims to upgrade its ground robotics platforms and common control systems for unmanned systems. At the center of this strategy is the packable robot segment; with the launch of the ‘Common Robotic System-Individual CRS (I), the Army’s first small-sized robotic program. According to US Army specifications, the CRS (I) robot is fitted with advanced sensors and mission modules to support dismounted forces. Weighing in at less than 28lb, the lightweight robot system can easily be carried in a backpack. In addition, the robot features an interoperability profile with an open architecture that enables it to support different payloads for multiple mission types.

SPUR Squad-Packable Utility Robot
UC-LITE Unmanned Systems Universal Controller

In March 2019, the U.S Army selected QinetiQ North America’s (QNA) ‘Squad Packable Utility Robot (SPUR)’ as the winner of its CRS (I) program. This significant win for packable robots builds on QNA’s other contract awards in the field of unmanned ground robotics such as the TALON series of robots used world-wide in roles such as counter-IED.   Packable robots such as SPUR can be easily controlled by a Universal Controller (UC) allowing the operator to control other mobile unmanned platforms using the same control interface. The universal controller is a positive step to reduce the training and logistical burdens associated with deploying a variety of small, unmanned systems built by different manufacturers.  By enabling a soldier to control different systems, smaller units at the lowest tactical level can now benefit from the use of multiple unmanned systems. Importantly, the UC interface and actual controller has to be intuitive and easy to operate, to achieve synergy between the robot and its operator in the field.

TALON Multi-Mission EOD Robot
Dragon Runner 10

Amongst those countries funding UGV research programmes is the UK. Via its Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) has allocated £66 million in funding to accelerate robotic projects. In April 2019, the MOD launched a Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) competition for the development of semi-autonomous forward reconnaissance systems controlled from manned mobile assets classed as Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) and builds upon previous programmes such as the ‘Last Mile Resupply’ Programme, a programme to prove the value of UGV’s as logistical assets on the battlefield.

Effective integration of man and machine as a team allows forces to learn, adapt, fight and win with increasing confidence.  Introduction of remotely controlled assets at the squad level changes the dynamics of how a squad operates. Assigning the task of operating the robot to one squad members, may reduce the number of weapons that can be brought to bear, but is more than compensated for through the benefits of enhanced situational awareness and force protection.

Dragon Runner 10                                                                                
TALON transported by soldiers in the field

In conclusion, most future warfare scenarios point to the increasing utilisation of UGVs in decisive ground operations. With advances in the enabling technologies, UGVs are set to reduce in size and weight while gaining in capability and endurance. Whilst the essentially human nature of dismounted operations will not disappear, UGVs with ever increasing levels of integration between man and machine will become an enduring feature of the future infantry squad.

By Ammar Qweider, Sales Manager, Houbara