November 25, 2009      

In keeping with his plan to address the challenges of irregular warfare, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates announced in April 2009 that all eight manned vehicle programs of the Army’s long-running Future Combat Systems (FCS) program were cancelled and much of the rest of the project would be reconsidered for funding. The FCS program has been rebranded as the Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Modernization program, which the Pentagon promises will continue to be a boon to unmanned systems programs already being developed under FCS. In fact, the deployment of many unmanned systems programs will be wider under the BCT Modernization program than under FCS, and therefore there promises to be opportunities for solution providers that deliver technology and services to support the development and deployment of functional small unmanned ground vehicles (SUGVs) and multifunction utility/logistics and equipment (MULE) vehicles.

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Defense (DoD) intends with its 2010 budget to “retain and accelerate the fielding of other FCS capabilities, which have demonstrated success, such as unmanned ground and aerial vehicles and the unattended sensors.” The OMB estimates the cost of these systems to be $24.5 billion through 2015, with the vast majority of spending going to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Unmanned ground systems receive $125 million in the 2010 budget, up from $103 million in 2009 and $78 million in 2008.

Larger Distribution Expected for Robotics Technologies
Unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) development has been a significant component of the FCS program.  But now, instead of being deployed in a single FCS-equipped brigade, the robotics technologies originally developed under FCS will see potentially much larger distribution. In a release regarding the cancellation of the FCS program, the DoD said it would push the “initial increment of the FCS program to seven infantry brigades in the near term and additional programs for information and communications networks, unmanned ground and air vehicles and sensors, and an integration effort aimed at follow-on spinouts to all Army brigades.”

That’s good news for iRobot and Lockheed Martin, as each of these companies has been heavily involved in developing some aspect of unmanned ground vehicle technology for FCS. The expansion of the BCT Modernization program will also create opportunities for other technology providers to grab pieces of the unmanned systems pie, especially if they can deliver solutions that address “irregular warfare”—a violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over relevant populations, the DoD says, that favors indirect and asymmetric approaches.

Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles
The iRobot PackBot, a remotely controlled UGV used primarily to provide situational awareness or detect and dispose of improvised explosive device (IEDs), is the most successful military UGV program to date. The military has bought more than 2,400 PackBots so far under a $200 million, five-year contract.

iRobot is also the primary developer of the man-portable SUGV—a scouting and explosives disposal robot built to be carried by infantry units—for the FCS program. The SUGV weighs less than 30 pounds and has the ability to scramble through all sorts of terrain on its own recognizance using an autonomous navigation system. It is the smaller, lighter cousin to PackBot, with better autonomy capabilities.

The SUGV is one of the elements of FCS most likely to deploy soon. It is in accelerated testing, which the Army Evaluation Task Force is conducting as part of FCS’ “Spinout One.”
Because of its size and mission, the SUGV is well suited to the Army’s mission in Afghanistan. It is infantry-oriented, and it can provide a low-profile set of forward eyes for troops.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum is the other major unmanned ground system in FCS: the MULE vehicle, developed by Lockheed Martin (and subcontractor MillenWorks). More than a virtual pack animal, MULE is being developed in three variants—a cargo transport, a mine clearing system, and a direct combat support version for infantry that carries a heavy gun and antitank missiles.

The MULE is designed to take on many of the tasks currently carried out by manned Humvees—that is, carrying supplies for platoon- and company-sized units, both in convoys and off-road, in support of light infantry and airborne assault units. This is a significantly more challenging requirement than the SUGV’s task, due to higher speeds and a variety of navigation. Such challenges lead the way toward opportunities for many technology/solution providers.

The MULE is still on track for delivery to the Army in 2014. Lockheed is looking to deliver a smaller support robot, the Squad Mission Support System (SMSS), sometime next year. The SMSS is a robotic system based on commercial all-terrain vehicles that can provide 1,000 pounds of cargo-carrying capabilities for smaller units. SMSS was developed in a Lockheed independent research and development program, but will give Lockheed the ability to get a robot into field testing within the next year.

Roughly the size of a Humvee, the MULE will be significantly more expensive due largely to the custom-developed automotive elements of the vehicle—namely, its obstacle-climbing capabilities and other advanced handling characteristics. The large amount of custom development, which increases costs and development time, places the MULE at greater risk for cancellation. However, getting SMSS into the field early and quickly, incorporating field trial feedback into its development programs, will be an important leg up for Lockheed with regard to both follow-on MULE and SMSS designs and sustained support for the MULE program at large.
Autonomy Equals Opportunity
Whereas the adoption of UAVs in the military has been rapid and widespread, the military use of UGVs has been less dramatic. This is largely the result of difficulty in developing systems that can efficiently navigate ground terrain either autonomously or semi-autonomously.

For the UGV, whose primary role is explosives disposal, there is a requirement for a high level of precision in its operations—this demands the complete attention of the operator too. So, teleoperation, and not autonomous operation, is required. In other types of combat operations, however, forcing one member of a combat team to be totally focused on controlling a robot is not desirable. In fact, the military has made it very clear it believes that increasing the autonomy levels of unmanned systems will result in:

  • Casualty reduction

  • Increased efficacy

  •  Greater capabilities

  • Overall cost reduction

While advancements in UAVs have made them much more autonomous, the technology required to navigate the simplest ground terrain is much more demanding than what UAVs typically face. UAVs fly high enough to avoid most land masses and have little in the way of object avoidance to concern them, but UGVs must be able to sense variation in the terrain beneath and around them—they must also avoid such obstacles as other vehicles and people. The sensors that enable UGVs to understand their surroundings are available, but much work and additional technologies are required before UGVs can successfully navigate even relatively benign environments with some level of autonomy.

Other Opportunities
There are significant gaps in the capabilities between SUGVs and MULE systems that the Army is looking to fill with other autonomous ground systems. For example, small and cheap “swarming” robots, like the LANdroid robots iRobot is developing under a current Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program, may be more valuable to infantry than SUGVs as platforms for sensors, exploring fortifications and tunnels, as well as in providing communications links.
Larger, multipurpose robots, like iRobot’s Warrior, and armed scout robots, like Gladiator, will fill some of the other gaps in the interim, but there are significant opportunities for other technology providers to take advantage of the demanding, mission-specific requirements for UGVs across the Army’s many mission profiles—route clearance and persistent surveillance provide good examples. It is also likely that the Army and other services that face budget pressure will be attracted to technologies that provide for the outfitting of existing vehicles to become UGVs for convoy operations as well as some roles for which MULEs might be appropriate.

The Bottom Line

The Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Modernization program’s emphasis on technology that supports irregular warfare will result in the expansion of many unmanned ground systems programs. This presents opportunities for solution providers that deliver technology and services to support the development and deployment of functional small unmanned ground vehicles (SUGVs) and multifunction utility/logistics and equipment (MULE) vehicles. Especially attractive to the U.S. military are solutions that:

  • Increase vehicle autonomy
  • Fill capability gaps between SUGVs and MULE vehicles
  • Result in systems optimized for specific mission profiles as well as more generalized functions, such as convoying