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How Robots Are Stealing a March on the Military

Image: Lockheed SMSS

Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) taken on June 11, 2009. Lockheed Martin

The robots of the future could take the weight off a soldier's shoulders.

That's the idea driving the team at work on Lockheed Martin's Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) -- a large, unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) that can navigate without human control.

"The goal of the machine is to carry all the gear and material that a soldier might need to move around a battlefield, especially in remote and austere areas," said Myron Mills, program manager of the SMSS.

"Today, the typical infantry soldier carries about 120-130 pounds of kit on them and that's just a typical load," he adds, saying the SMSS is about the size of a compact car.

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Lockheed Martin expects a new vehicle resembling SMSS to become an official U.S. Army program in the next 2-3 years. Prototypes have already been tested by the U.S. military in combat missions in Afghanistan. It has also designed a kit that gives existing military vehicles robotic capabilities.

While unmanned ground vehicles are already in wide use by the military in tasks such as bomb disposal, these tend to be small machines confined to a close range, Mills said.

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"As you get into the size class of UGVs that we're working with on the SMSS, it opens up a whole new range of things that you can do with a vehicle –- it has tremendous endurance, a lot of power, the ability to get over a lot of rough terrain," he added.

Mills said the SMSS can also be used for other functions such as counter-mine missions, surveillance, communications and portable power.

Robots on the battlefield

Robotics, in one form or another, are in growing use by the military around the world from drones to small robots for mine disposal.

According to media reports in recent weeks, the U.S. military is getting ready to try out an unmanned robotic ship to track hostile submarines.

"When we talk to military leaders at all different levels in all parts of the services, we haven't come across anybody that doesn't accept it as fact that in some period of time there will be lots of robotic systems on the battlefield," said Mills.

Budget cuts are an incentive for armed forces in many major economies to increase their use of robotics, analysts say.

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The U.S. Defense Department said last year that it would shrink the U.S. army to levels seen before World War II to meet 2015 spending caps. The British army is undertaking a 20 percent reduction in regular armed forces from 102,000 in 2010 to 82,000 by 2020.

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"With the budget pressures the U.S. military feels today and the growing complexity of the world's geopolitical environment, the military is in a situation where it has to do more with less," said Mills.

He hopes the robotic systems his team are working on will be able to reduce the "cognitive load" on the user and reduce the time a soldier would spend watching a screen or a vehicle.

"Ultimately, we'd like to get to a system capability that is smart enough to behave like a squad member, where most of the time it can react to other squad members without having to be specifically directed to do certain things," said Mills.