US Army Prototyping Platoons, Integrating Robots

Defence Industry

Fort Moore: US Army soldiers at both the Manoeuvre Centre of Excellence and the National Training Centre are testing out new platoon formations that integrate robots and other technology into dangerous combat scenarios.

General James Rainey, head of Army Futures Command, described a recent scenario conducted by a light infantry platoon at Fort Moore, Georgia, during remarks at the Association of the US Army periodic featured speakers event at the organisation’s Arlington, Virginia headquarters.

“We’re prototyping platoons,” Rainey said. “This isn’t Power Point; we have our first human-machine integrated formation for light infantry.”

MCOE Experimental Company, 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, 316th conducted an urban assault. But instead of human soldiers rushing across open areas and bursting into buildings, robots took the lead.

Rainey said 20 soldiers with four robotic vehicles were able to cross the open terrain to reach the building. But first robots with smoke generators created a screen. At the same time, robot vehicles with tethered drones jammed enemy signals and extended the soldiers’ network. Small drones dropped robotic ground vehicles with cameras atop buildings to scout the interior while even smaller aerial drones entered windows, scanning the inside of the structure and transmitting back a “blueprint” of the building to soldiers on the ground.

Then robot “dogs” with cameras of their own, entered the building looking for hazards and seeking out enemy troops. The experimental unit also showcased their current human-machine work during a mid-October Human Machine Integration Summit at Fort Moore.

“We demonstrated how a forward line of UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) sensors can be deployed and supported by a forward line of armed robotics, all ahead of the forward line of troops,” Capt Tim Young, experimental company commander said in an Army release. “That way we’re sensing early on in the battlefield, we’re engaging with robots making sure we don’t shed human blood for first contact, and then we’re bringing in troops to finish the fight.”

Another human-machine integrated platoon with the opposite force trainers at the National Training Centre at Fort Irwin, California is being built to work alongside mechanized formations. Due to the speed of movement of those types of units, Rainey said early work will focus on defensive positions until the robotic platforms can keep up with the fast-moving formation.

But early concepts and experimenting hold promise, he said.

He sketched out some early ideas that include taking a 14-tank company and adding four robots, 10 soldiers and a couple of Armoured Multi-Purpose Vehicles. That might not seem like a lot of extra firepower, but with those extras, commanders can add loitering munitions, robot ammunition and battery resupply, keeping soldiers in the fight.

“One of the fascinating things is robotic (casualty evacuation),” Rainey said. “If you take casualties instead of four soldiers carrying one soldier on a litter, you could put four litters on a robot, keep the medic with it, pre-program a grid and (evacuate).”

“The basic idea behind human-machine integration is our quest for what’s aspirational is absolutely blinding us to what’s doable,” Rainey said. There may be a day when the Army has a robot tank that can travel 70km an hour through 6 feet of mud or a robot graduate Ranger School, Rainey said. But that’s not happening today. As AFC commander, the general said he’s pushed leaders to work with what’s available now.