AUSA 2017: This military ATV can 'think' and drive itself

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Robots will soon be serving alongside soldiers in the U.S. Army, but not the sort of humanoid robots seen in "Terminator" – these robots could be more like “thinking” ATVs.

The U.S. Army launched a revolutionary SMET initiative that aims to integrate robots into brigades.

While top brass walked the floors of AUSA exploring innovation for future combat in Washington D.C., in Georgia at Fort Benning, robot selection to join the troops is in an intense final week.


Many companies had thrown their robots in the ring for selection to serve and the Army narrowed down those invited to the Benning phase that began back on Sept. 11 and is expected to conclude Oct. 14. The final four robots will be chosen and the Army will ask the companies to begin production.

The jungle drums at AUSA have it that the selected robots may be integrating and working alongside soldiers in brigade combat teams (BCTs) as soon as early next year.

Why enlist robots to join the infantry?

What will these robot “soldiers” be able to bring to the fight?

American soldiers are required to carry a great deal of weight on missions, as much as over 100 pounds of gear. The SMET robot will play a key role in lightening the load for soldiers.

The aim is for a SMET robot to be able to carry 1,000 pounds across more than 60 miles in 72 hours.

The robot needs to operate autonomously, but also be compatible with a human manning it. It needs to be smart enough to follow the soldiers as they move.

In doing so, it also needs to be able to manage the wide range of terrains – and often tough terrains – that U.S. soldiers travel through. Wherever a soldier goes, a SMET will ideally be able to go too.

The robot will therefore need to have the right balance of being big enough to carry at least 1,000 pounds, while small enough to navigate through narrow areas in between trees in a forest or jungle, for example.

Soldiers don’t always walk to their missions, they often fly. So the SMET should be able to join them and fit inside a helicopter or the slung load.

If soldiers are under attack, they can defend themselves, so perhaps the robot will be equipped with advanced sensors to process and understand the threat and armed with weaponry to defend itself and fellow human soldiers too.


What else could it be used for?

SMET is not just about the strength in terms of weight it can carry, ideally SMET will also enhance power for soldiers. The Army has set the goal that while on the move, the robots need to be able to generate 11kW of power and 3 kW while stationary.

This requirement could produce promising new battery technology, new methods of power generation and new ways to use alternative fuels.

SMET may also have potential to perform other roles like patrolling. At a base, it could be deployed for perimeter security or running re-supply missions through dangerous areas to reduce the risk to soldiers.

Early SMETs have even established they could tow soldiers on skis and follow soldiers in jungles, neither of which are easy tasks.


Adding brains to extreme off-roading ATVs

Autonomy is extremely difficult. Autonomy on a platform that can go where a soldier can go and can tackle off road and tough terrain is even more difficult.

Polaris makes popular ATVs that are driven throughout the states America for fun. But they also make vehicles for the Armed Forces and the ultra-light MRZRs have long been a US military favorite for their outstanding off-road mobility.

In fact, U.S. special operations forces and the wider military regularly rely on the advanced capabilities MRZR 2 and MRZR 4 for their work downrange.

The company teamed up with robot experts Applied Research Associates and Neya Systems to turn their wildly popular MRZR into the MRZR X – a smart MRZR that integrates advanced robotics so it can drive without a human at the wheel.

At AUSA, there was a steady stream of Army personnel looking to examine the MRZR-X – the company’s submission for SMET selection. Still under close wraps, only the MRZR that provides the basis of X was available.


The mysterious MRZR-X

So what can we expect the under-wraps MRZR-X can do? We can expect the smarts laid out in the Army requirements combined with the MRZR’s capabilities.

This SMET robot would have the SOF-grade MRZR feature of on-demand, advanced all-wheel drive. When more traction is needed, the vehicle already has the smarts to automatically engage all four wheels and return to two-wheels when appropriate.

Both variants also reach a max speed of around 60 miles per hour and sport engines that have 88 horsepower, designed for extreme performance in the toughest terrains. For ensure maximum agility, the ATVs are built with a low center of gravity. In part, this is achieved by cunning placement of key components like the engine. These capabilities will provide an advantage in the MRZR-X being able to travel wherever a Soldier goes.

The MRZR 2 already meets the SMET weight requirement. It can carry 1,000 pounds, while the MRZR 4 can carry an additional 500 pounds.

For the versatility of SMET manned or unmanned, the MRZR vehicles are already designed with keyless ignition, which makes it easy for a human to jump in and instantly go. The vehicles can also be endlessly adapted for different mission configurations and requirements.

One very important option the MRZR-X could bring to a war zone is the litter configuration. Theoretically, the MRZR-X could drive a team out of harm’s way by itself while carrying wounded soldiers and freeing up the driver to also help treat the wounded.

Important for keeping a low profile, avoiding detection and not compromising the humans it would travel alongside, the vehicle can black out instantaneously.

Definitely air transportable, the MRZRs regularly catch flights with CV-22 tiltrotor military aircraft to support teams gaining access to targets.