Robots Could Save Soldiers’ Lives, Army General Says

WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2011 — Robots and unmanned sys­tems poten­tial­ly could improve ene­my sur­veil­lance, reduce a soldier’s work­load and save lives on the bat­tle­field, an Army gen­er­al said here this week.

 Oshkosh TerraMax autonomous vehicle
Oshkosh Ter­ra­Max autonomous vehi­cle.
Oshkosh pho­to
Click to enlarge

Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, com­mand­ing gen­er­al of the U.S. Army Instal­la­tion Man­age­ment Com­mand and assis­tant Army chief of staff for instal­la­tion man­age­ment, addressed an audi­ence at a ses­sion of the 2011 Unmanned Sys­tems North Amer­i­ca con­fer­ence host­ed by the Asso­ci­a­tion for Unmanned Vehi­cle Sys­tems Inter­na­tion­al.

“As I think about what’s hap­pen­ing on the bat­tle­field today,” Lynch said, “I con­tend there are things we could do to improve the sur­viv­abil­i­ty of our ser­vice mem­bers. And you all know that’s true.”

His audi­ence includ­ed some of AUVSI’s 7,000 atten­dees, rep­re­sent­ing the inter­na­tion­al defense enter­prise; indus­try; com­mer­cial, civil­ian and first-respon­der devel­op­ers; researchers; robot­ic sys­tem oper­a­tors and users; and acqui­si­tion inter­ests.

“When I look at the 153 sol­diers who paid the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice,” Lynch said, refer­ring to sol­diers who died under his com­mand in Iraq, “I know that 80 per­cent of them were placed in a sit­u­a­tion where we could have placed an unmanned sys­tem in the same job.”

As an Army offi­cer and U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my grad­u­ate, Lynch went to grad­u­ate school at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, earn­ing a master’s degree in mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing with a focus on robot­ics. As part of his the­sis at MIT, he designed a robot­ic manip­u­la­tor that could be used to load 60-pound main gun rounds in a tank mov­ing at 30 mph.

The Army has used increas­ing­ly capa­ble robot­ic and unmanned sys­tems for near­ly 10 years. As a robot­ics engi­neer, Lynch said, he’s seen some progress in the Army’s use of such sys­tems, but he makes a case for expand­ed and accel­er­at­ed use.

In Iraq, in a place called Arab Jabour south­east of Bagh­dad, Lynch com­mand­ed 25,000 sol­diers who were part of Task Force Marne. Over six months, he said, they killed or cap­tured 6,000 insur­gents.

“What I real­ized I was lack­ing on the bat­tle­field then, and I con­tend it’s prob­a­bly still lack­ing today, is the abil­i­ty for a per­sis­tent stare,” the gen­er­al said.

What he did have, Lynch said, were unmanned aer­i­al sys­tems, which he called “a mag­nif­i­cent capa­bil­i­ty for watch­ing that area from the air.”

“The prob­lem was they didn’t have suf­fi­cient loi­ter time, [and] … I didn’t have suf­fi­cient assets,” he added.

Today over Iraq and Afghanistan, such sys­tems have flown more than 1.2 mil­lion com­bat hours.

But if unmanned aer­i­al sys­tems are going to improve sur­veil­lance, Lynch said, “we could focus on capa­bil­i­ties like per­sis­tent stare. I’ve seen the tech­nol­o­gy over the last 28 years — I know where we are.”

Lynch said these sys­tems, which fly from Point A to Point B at oper­a­tional speeds, could be used in mod­i­fied ways to pro­duce the same results afford­ed by per­sis­tent stare, Lynch said.

“That would be pow­er­ful — an addi­tion­al appli­ca­tion on the bat­tle­field today to improve sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness,” he added.

The Army uses robot­ic ground sys­tems that haul gear, nav­i­gate tun­nels and rough ter­rain, mon­i­tor remote areas, cap­ture and trans­mit images, search for road­side bombs, remove obsta­cles from roads and some­times go where no sol­dier can safe­ly go.

Such robots can be used to reduce a soldier’s work­load, and even can make up for the reduc­tion in the Army’s civil­ian work­force that will occur over the next year as the defense bud­get is cut.

As com­man­der of the Army’s Instal­la­tion Man­age­ment Com­mand, Lynch is respon­si­ble for what he calls “120,000 ded­i­cat­ed civil­ians world­wide.” Defense cuts are reduc­ing Lynch’s by about 7,000 by the end of fis­cal 2012, he said. “Could we use robot­ics to address some of those issues?” he asked the audi­ence. “I con­tend the answer is yes.”

Not many of the Army’s robots, though, are com­plete­ly autonomous. Most are remote­ly con­trolled or tele-oper­at­ed, mean­ing real-time con­trol of remote­ly locat­ed machines.

“I’m an advo­cate of autonomous vehi­cle tech­nol­o­gy. … There’s a place on the bat­tle­field for tele-oper­at­ed sys­tems, [but] we have to con­tin­ue to advo­cate for pur­suit of autonomous vehi­cle tech­nol­o­gy,” he said.

In 2009, as 3rd Corps com­mand­ing gen­er­al at Fort Hood, Texas, Lynch orga­nized a Robot Rodeo. As part of the fes­tiv­i­ties, Lynch and Gen. Ann Dun­woody, com­man­der of the U.S. Army Materiel Com­mand, rode on a ful­ly autonomous vehi­cle called Ter­ra­Max, devel­oped by Oshkosh Defense.

“We got in the bed of a truck that [had] trav­eled across coun­try in an autonomous fash­ion,” Lynch said. “It was she and I, and some­body sit­ting behind the wheel for safe­ty rea­sons, but he didn’t have to touch the wheel or the brakes or the accel­er­a­tor. He didn’t have to touch any­thing, because it was an autonomous sys­tem,” the gen­er­al added.

“We all know that could hap­pen,” he said. “What I’m con­cerned about is peo­ple say­ing, ‘We don’t need that. Tele-oper­at­ed is good enough.’ But I don’t believe that’s true.”

To reduce the work­load, Lynch said, “we’ve got to keep the warfight­er in the loop, but he doesn’t have to be ded­i­cat­ed to a par­tic­u­lar mis­sion.”

“You can give the sys­tem a cer­tain degree of autonomous capa­bil­i­ty so [the warfight­er] can mon­i­tor and super­vise mul­ti­ple sys­tems and con­tin­ue his mis­sion with a reduced work­load,” he said.

Over the last 28 years, Lynch added, he has made it a point to host some kind of robot­ic vehi­cle demon­stra­tion every­where he’s been. “And I’ve seen the evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­o­gy,” he added. “I believe can­did­ly we can accel­er­ate the evo­lu­tion of autonomous tech­nol­o­gy if peo­ple would just acknowl­edge that it’s impor­tant.”

Maj. Gen. Wal­ter L. Davis, deputy direc­tor of the U.S. Army Capa­bil­i­ties Inte­gra­tion Cen­ter, part of the U.S. Army Train­ing and Doc­trine Com­mand, joined Lynch at the con­fer­ence. Today, he said, unmanned sys­tems improve per­sis­tence, endurance and pro­tec­tion across all warfight­ing func­tions.

“They pro­vide sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness, unmanned lethal and non­lethal fires, unat­tend­ed pre­ci­sion tar­get attack and acqui­si­tion, max­i­mum stand­off from threats, … and per­form unmanned logis­tics sup­port and ser­vices,” he said.

The capa­bil­i­ties that unmanned sys­tems enable are unques­tioned, the gen­er­al added. “[And] at least from the Army’s per­spec­tive, this is all about our sol­dier, who is the cen­ter of grav­i­ty,” he said.

The sol­dier, Davis said, “must be the focus of every­thing we’re try­ing to accom­plish, and it’s about enabling that sol­dier to be more effec­tive, effi­cient and pro­tect­ed while sup­port­ing the Army’s mis­sion.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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