This robot can take the weight off soldiers' shoulders

Lockheed's Squad Mission Support System is a rolling robot that could carry much of the load soldiers and Marines take into the field. Will the Pentagon authorize it?

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A Lockheed technician runs while a prototype robotic vehicle follows closely behind, tracking his every move. The vehicle was designed to autonomously carry soldiers' and Marines' gear when in the field. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas -- Without pausing, the Jeep-sized vehicle made quick work of the steep pile of rocks, its wide, knobby tires climbing the small hill with ease.

Even more remarkable, the vehicle had no driver.

Meet the Squad Mission Support System, or SMSS, a prototype Lockheed Martin project designed to help the military take the load off combat soldiers and Marines.

Literally.

Soldiers and Marines often are forced to carry as much as 130 pounds of gear into the field with them. That weight, while comprising many different essentials -- food, water, ammunition, batteries, clothing, and so on -- can take a toll on their ankles, backs, and knees. One solution: transfer much of that gear onto autonomous vehicles that follow along with military units as they head out on missions.

To date, the U.S. military has yet to formally issue a contract for such systems, but it has indicated its interest in them. Lockheed, along with companies like Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Qinetiq, have decided it's worth investing in prototype programs that will vie for the contract if and when the Pentagon chooses to proceed.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to this small town in northeastern Texas town near Dallas to get a first-hand look at Lockheed's SMSS. Though the company may never produce the vehicles in large numbers, what it has made already is impressive.

You lead, it follows

Parked on a small piece of concrete, an SMSS, nicknamed "Ox," a reference to the oxen used by the Army to haul supplies during World War II and the Korean War, isn't all that much to look at. But when a Lockheed technician with an Xbox controller in his hand starts driving it remotely across a field full of variable terrain, and it doesn't miss a beat, it's another thing entirely.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    That's the SMSS' basic mode: being driven by a technician -- or a soldier in the field -- with an off-the-shelf controller. At Lockheed's facility here, I'm shown how it can easily be sent across the field, reacting almost instantly to the technician's left or right movements on a $20 joystick that could be purchased at a GameStop store on some military bases in Afghanistan.

    More impressive, though, is when the technician set up a planned route, with five or six different way points, and sent SMSS on its way. The vehicle started up and smoothly drove the route, using obstacle-detection technology to avoid barriers between each of the way points. When it was done, you could almost imagine it sitting down at the end and wagging its tail like a proud dog who has done what its master asked.

    In the field, an SMSS could be sent on a mission of up to 125 miles, following its preprogrammed way points, all without needing communications, until it finishes its task.

    More impressive still was when it was programmed to follow a Lockheed technician across the field. Once he told it to "lock on to me," and it recognized him, the vehicle simply drove slowly behind him as he walked -- and then ran -- around, even climbing the small rock hill, or going through a thick patch of grass. The vehicle kept a consistent distance behind, speeding up when he ran, and finally stopping when he stopped. Thanks to a pattern-recognition system, it is able, I was told, to distinguish between different people, and can follow the specific person it's told to track, even if there are multiple people moving around.

    This is not something Lockheed and its competitors are just testing at their U.S.-based facilities. In 2012, Lockheed conducted an SMSS test with U.S. Army light infantry units in Afghanistan, according to Don Nimblett, a senior business development manager for Lockheed's unmanned ground vehicles program. He said it was taken to combat outposts, and then to strongpoints, carrying the soldiers' supplies. In one 30-hour mission, an SMSS moved 10,000 pounds of supplies that soldiers would have otherwise had to carry themselves.

    A unit could load up the SMSS with everything needed for a 72-hour deployment, and if, as often happens, it was retasked while in the field, the soldiers wouldn't have to return to their operations base for gear. "The units loved the vehicles," he said, "and sometimes wouldn't bring them back."

    smss-jgh9285.jpg
    An SMSS loaded up with a unit's gear. Lockheed Martin.

    Now Nimblett's Lockheed team is preparing for a test -- the second of its kind -- of a third major capability of the SMSS: controlling the vehicles from hundreds, or thousands, of miles away via satellite communications.

    Last year, Lockheed conducted a successful demonstration of this capability at an Army base in Michigan. Using a satellite communications system built by General Dynamics, Lockheed was able to control the SMSS in real time from far away, seeing in front of it thanks to an on-board gyro-cam. Even at a distance of more than 200 miles, there was less than half a second of latency, which "allowed us to safely remote control [the SMSS] around other people," Nimblett said. Lockheed is preparing for a second satellite demonstration at the Army's Fort Benning in Georgia in August.

    This could be an important capability for the military, given that commanders could send an SMSS into hostile territory to spot targets and acquire their GPS coordinates. This, in turn, could allow those commanders to call in a firing mission from military aircraft or artillery units, all without requiring soldiers or Marines to risk their safety.

    The SMSS could also, in theory, be outfitted with what is called a roller/rake, and ground-penetrating radar, allowing it to be sent into potentially mined areas, and clearing any explosives planted there. As it drives, it memorizes its path, which could then be used to generate a safe route for soldiers to follow. This has not yet been done, but Nimblett said it was well within the SMSS' capabilities.

    Pentagon approval?

    Lockheed and its competitors are hopeful that the Pentagon will soon decide to move forward with what is known as a squad multipurpose equipment transport (SMET) program. He said that it's thought the Defense Department will do so within a year.

    If the Pentagon approves SMET, Lockheed and its rivals will bid for the contract. The Army would then select two or three contractors to develop prototypes, Nimblett said, and the military would test each of the systems, finally selecting one to fund.

    Unfortunately for the contractors hoping to land this contract, this could end up taking between 7 and 11 years from concept to "inventory," meaning that although there have already been successful field tests, it could be many years before systems like the SMSS are standard in combat. That could mean future conflicts rather than America's current war in Afghanistan.

    There are certainly questions to be answered, such as what happens if an SMSS is attacked, costing a unit most of its gear. Such a risk exists. But even if that happened, Lockheed believes that soldiers would not lose their "battle rattle," their most essential 40 pounds of gear, such as their weapons, night-vision goggles, helmets, and so forth, that they will always carry themselves.

    Still, given the many capabilities, starting with being able to carry a full squad's worth of gear -- about 8,000 pounds for a nine-man Army unit, or 10,000 pounds for a 13-man Marine unit -- there is reason to believe the military will move forward with some kind of system like the SMSS, be it from Lockheed or another contractor. The military works hard to convey the message that it's doing all it can to protect combat soldiers and Marines, and Lockheed believes the SMSS is one clear way to do so. After all, said Nimblett, the SMSS safely "expands the time and distance that a unit can operate from its parent unit."

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

     

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