Children who grew up playing with remotely controlled toy tanks are now adults using real world versions in wargames here on the Salisbury Plain Training Area near Stonehenge.
For the past month, U.S. and British forces have been testing emerging robotic technologies in a try-before-you-buy exercise dubbed Autonomous Warrior. The fourth annual Army Warfighting Experiment is a collaborative effort focused on using unmanned aerial and ground vehicles to make troops safer and more effective on the battlefield.
“If you work off the principle that robotics should be first into harm’s way, then that will start to open up opportunities where you don’t have to commit manpower,” said Maj. Gareth Morris, a British Army exchange officer serving as executive officer at the U.S. Army Maneuver Battle Lab. “It’s all about increasing combat power without necessarily increasing the size of an army.”
This year saw land-based driverless technology for the first time on a robotic tracked vehicle named Titan Strike, made by the British firm Qinetiq, and an unmanned variant of the British Warrior infantry fighting vehicle.
The driverless vehicles were among the 50 products selected for use in this year’s exercise from an initial 122 submissions from commercial industry. Of those, 36 made the final cut for future consideration after soldiers from the Fort Benning, Ga.-based U.S. Army Experimental Force Platoon, or EXFOR, as well as British light infantry and Royal Marines, put them through four weeks of combat trials in rain, mud and snow.
“We’ll show up in the right place and right uniform, get some pieces of kit, and then we’ll tell them the pros and cons and try to get good data for Maneuver Battle Lab to then decide on what to buy for the Army,” said 1st Lt. William Wren, EXFOR platoon leader. “It’s our responsibility to make it as realistic as possible, so we try to put a lot of tactical pressure on ourselves.”
Human operators were required to fire any weapon systems, but the Titan Strike is programmed to work autonomously.
“In the 21st century, the army that knows how to use these first effectively will win,” Morris said.
Testing also included a slew of unmanned and remotely controlled construction, sustainment and military vehicles, such as the Horiba Mira Bobcat and Rakka 3000 tractors that can clear away roadblocks while their operators are tucked away safely in a nearby bunker.
An unmanned Polaris MRZR X, a light four-wheeled off-road vehicle, can quietly zip across muddy terrain while running solely on battery power to deliver ammunition to soldiers in cover. The Hippo amphibious vehicle can carry supplies, provide cover and transport casualties.
“We were using it to take it across a field for casualty evacuations so that I wasn’t out there in the field of fire,” said Pfc. Austin Meggison, an Army infantryman with EXFOR, speaking about the Hippo. “It’s really easy to use.”
Some products return each year with improvements based on previous soldier feedback, like the FLIR Black Hornet PRS. The nearly silent, pocket-sized drone transmits live video and high definition images back to the operator. It can fly about a mile in up to 25 minutes of flight time.
Observers from 14 NATO countries gathered their own impressions on possible acquisitions.
“We’re helping them scout their own needs,” Morris said. “For some of those nations who don’t have the capacity, size of technology or advantages that we have in the U.K. and U.S., that’s quite important.”
The next Army Warfighting Experiment is scheduled for January at Fort Benning, where British infantry from this exercise will test other prototype technologies with their U.S. partners.
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