Marines: Armed Robotic Dogs Join the Marines


June 16, 2024: The American Marines have had troops assigned to SOCOM (Special Operations Command) since 2005. Bowing to pressure from the Department of Defense, and SOCOM, the marines are the last of the services to make such a contribution. Since then the marines have made numerous contributions to SOCOM, the latest being new Vision 60 UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles). These are four legged robots that walk and can be equipped with a rifle that opens fire under the control of a remote human operator. Each Vision 60 weighs 51 kg and has a payload of 10 kg, This can consist of a weapon or additional sensors. A Vision 60 can operate up to ten kilometers from its operator. Top speed is 180 meters a minute or three meters a second. The batteries enable three hours of operations. Vision 60 has an AI powered target detection system that can identify hostile targets that must be fired on. A human operator must approve opening fire. Since one controller can supervise the activity of several UGVs patrolling commercial or military installations. In addition to controllers you need one or more maintainers to change batteries and otherwise keep the UGVs in good condition.

The marines are using Vision 60s for combat operations. A UGV can be used instead of a marine for a high risk job, like entering a cave, tunnel, or building where armed opponents may be hiding. Vision 60 can climb up or down stairs and handle most terrain that a marine will encounter.

Vision 60 is an evolutionary development from the remotely controlled bomb disposal robots used since 2002. That was when the PackBot remotely controlled UGV was introduced for bomb disposal and replacing soldiers for exploring tunnels and caves.

In the 1990s the U.S. Army began exploring the small UGV concept but did not expect to have them in service until 2010 or later. September 11, 2001, changed all that. A year later PackBot showed up. Over 2,000 PackBots were used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over the next decade and more than 5,000 were sold to military, police and first responder personnel during the same period. Updated PackBots are still produced for military and bomb disposal users.

In 2011 the U.S. Army began using SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle). This was a UGV developed by Teledyne with cooperation from the U.S. Army. SUGV development took over six years because PackBot was a hard act to follow. SUGV is also still in production, serving the same markets as PackBot and a growing number of competitors.

In 2011 the U.S. Army received the production model XM1216 SUGV robots. SUGV was the next generation infantry droid, replacing existing droids like PackBot. Before September 11, 2001, the army didn't expect to have robots like PackBot or SUGV until 2013. But the technology was already there, and the war created a major demand. The robots expected in 2013 were to be part of a new generation of gear called FCS (Future Combat Systems). SUGV was designed to use high tech FCS communications and sensor equipment, and, like PackBot, used off-the-shelf substitutes while waiting for the more ambitious versions the army was still developing. The troops didn't care, as long as it worked. These small robots proved to be quite rugged, having a 90 percent availability rate.

The overly ambitious, expensive and much delayed FCS program was canceled two years before SUGV was ready, but successful bits, like SUGV, were allowed to keep moving. This was a big deal for SUGV, because demand for these small droids collapsed when the Islamic terror offensive in Iraq did in 2008. There were plenty of droids left over for service in Afghanistan, where the Taliban provided a much lower workload for the little bots than did Iraq. Packbot is still being used for emergency situations including natural disasters, industrial accidents, as well as bomb disposal. Most major police departments have PackBots or similar UGVs for emergencies.

SUGV is a 13 kg robot, similar to the slightly larger Packbot. SUGV can carry 3 kg of gear, and seven different "mission packages" are available. These include various types of sensors and double-jointed arms (for grabbing things.) SUGV is waterproof and shock resistant. It fits into the standard army backpack and is meant to operate in a harsh environment. The battery powered SUGV is operated wirelessly, or via a fiber optic cable, using a controller that looks like a video game controller with a video screen built in. SUGV can also use an XBox 360 controller, with the right drivers. Like PackBot, SUGV can climb stairs, maneuver over rubble and other nasty terrain. Currently the SUGV is still in use by military units.

The SUGV design is based largely on feedback from combat troops. For example, it is rugged enough to be quickly thrown into a room, or cave, activated and begin sending video, as well as audio, of what is in there. This feature makes it very popular with the troops, who want droids with the ability to see, hear and smell more acutely. No one likes being the first one to go into dark, potentially dangerous, places. Throwing a grenade at first doesn't always work, because sometimes frightened civilians are in there. Despite all these fine qualities, the current generation of robots is not fast enough, agile enough or sensitive enough to compete with human troops doing this kind of work. Sometimes, however, robots are an adequate, and lifesaving, substitute. SUGV is supposed to be better at this sort of thing.

SUGV can also perform outpost and listening post work. These are two dangerous jobs the infantry are glad to hand off to a robot. Outposts are, as the name implies, one or two troops dug in a hundred meters or so in front of the main position, to give early warning of an enemy attack. A listening post is similar, but the friendly troops are often much deeper into enemy territory. The SUGV battery enables it to just sit in one place, listening and watching, for eight hours or more. After that, you send out another SUGV with a fresh battery, and have the other one come back for a recharge. No risk of troops getting shot at while doing the same things, and the troops really appreciate that. Again, the problem with this is that the robot sensors are just not there yet. The sensors are getting close, but not close enough for troops to trust their lives to this thing.

Other dangerous jobs for the SUGV are placing explosives by a door to blow it open for the troops, or placing a smoke grenade where it will prevent the enemy from seeing the troops move. Ever since PackBot reached the troops, users filled military message boards with interesting uses they have found for these robots, and new features they could make use of. SUGV is the product of all that chatter.

By 2012 the Department of Defense owned about 6,000 small robots. Most of them were in the army, and a little over half were in a combat zone. There would be a lot more of these small robots out there if they were a bit smaller and had better sensors. Because of this, efforts to have the infantry regularly use the small robots in combat have not been successful. The older 19 kg Packbots and 50 kg Talon were fine for dealing with roadside bombs, but too big and heavy to easily haul around the battlefield. But most troops admitted that if the small droids were a bit smaller and lighter and had better ability to sense what was around (situational awareness) them, they would be more welcome.




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