Autonomous Robot Truck Will Debut in Afghanistan This Year

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SMSS feature
Lockheed Martin's Squad Mission Support System will see action in Afghanistan later this year. Can autonomous vehicles make a difference in the war?

While robots aren’t ready to carry the burden of being a soldier, they are more than able to carry their load. Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) is a 11 foot long, two ton, six-wheeled autonomous vehicle that can carry 1200 pounds of cargo up to 125 miles, and it’s going to be in Afghanistan along side active soldiers this year! Its advanced sensors and autonomous behavior allow it to follow preplanned paths, travel to way points, or just trail behind a human like 3800 pounds of infatuated puppy. The SMSS will allow ground troops to travel farther with less fatigue, but that’s just the beginning. In the future, vehicles like the SMSS could hold the key to completely unmanned supply lines and support systems. Check out videos of the autonomous rover in action below. Ready to join the thousands of ground robots already in Afghanistan, the SMSS is the latest sign that the modern US military relies on a balanced team of man and machine.

The SMSS is all about augmenting the capabilities of ground troops. US soldiers can carry a heavy load of weapons and supplies into combat, wearing them down and slowing their movement. With the SMSS carrying that equipment, soldiers can go farther and have more energy when they arrive at their destination. Also, the SMSS can be loaded with additional supplies for each mission, whether that’s food, heavy weapons, or even other robots. The following video highlights how the SMSS can operate with supervised autonomy or remote control, but the vehicle is also equipped to be driven manually:

Over the last few years, the SMSS has past several endurance and performance evaluations, proving it can handle real world combat situations. The following video highlights those accomplishments at length:

There are several key specs that make the SMSS particularly appealing for its kind of troop support. First, the range of 125 miles is more than enough to handle missions over several days. Second, its payload capacity (1200 lbs) means it can easily assist with the loads of a dozen soldiers, or carry important mission items for them (again: heavy weapons, other robots, etc). Third, its autonomous following is based on LIDAR, IR, and visual optics, not beacons – allowing soldiers to count on the vehicle to trail them without giving away their position. Fourth, if things get hairy, soldiers can always manually drive and ride the SMSS (providing a way to transport casualties in a pinch).

SMSS with supplies
Shown here with a full payload, the SMSS can transport a wide variety of equipment, including heavy weapons.

Of course, those advantages have yet to be tested in the heat and chaos of Afghanistan. The trial deployment of the SMSS, set to begin ‘late this year’, will only use four of the vehicles, with a fifth staying behind in the States to help with support and analysis.

Competition in the field of soldier support is getting really interesting. There are exoskeletons like the HULC (also developed by Lockheed Martin) which directly help a soldier’s body walk and run farther/faster, but which have severely limited battery life. We’ve been impressed by Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog, a robot mule that walks on legs over almost any kind of terrain – it may be able to go places that wheeled vehicles like the SMSS simply can’t. As each of these different approaches to easing soldier payloads develops we’ll likely see a lot of small scale experimentation in military theaters like Afghanistan. Bottom line, the next few years should tell us which (if any) of these systems are beneficial enough to become staples of the US army.

Whether or not any load-carrying robot succeeds, the growing role of autonomous machines is virtually assured at this point. As we’ve discussed before, there are thousands of ground robots in Afghanistan. Many are deployed to help with hazardous activities like bomb removal rather than combat missions, but that is changing. The success of tele-operated (and semi-autonomous) armed flying drones like the Reaper is pushing the US to seek other ways of removing the soldier from the battlefield while maintaining their lethal presence there. We’ve seen robot jets getting ready for active duty later this decade, and armed ground robots and turrets are already seeing use. Robots with guns are here, and they’re only going to become more prevalent in the years ahead.

Vehicles like the SMSS, however, show that less controversial machines are going to be no less important. In its autonomous behavior lies all the basic requirements for unmanned cargo missions. Throughout the last decade one of the most effective and morale destroying weapons in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been the improvised explosive device. Roadside IEDs have claimed thousands of lives, maimed thousands more, and pushed the US to spend billions of dollars and millions of man-hours countering them. Consider what it will mean when a military doesn’t have to send humans on the hundreds of supply missions it runs every day. With unmanned vehicles transporting goods on the ground, and unmanned attack drones covering them from the air, the death toll on soldiers could plummet. Instead of living in fear of IEDs, the US soldier would simply get used to repairing robots that were damaged by them. That future isn’t here yet, but success with the SMSS could herald its arrival.

Autonomous vehicles of all varieties are changing the way we make war. In the short term, the chances of fatality, already tilted in favor of advanced militaries, is going to skew even more. Tele-operated robots are making air strikes every day, they are guarding our nuclear assets, and they are diffusing bombs – hazardous work, and US lives aren’t directly at stake anymore. Soldiers wear many faces in their careers: warrior, peace-keeper, mule, medic…and now robots are stepping up to fill many of the same roles. The SMSS is another sign that machines are ready to do the menial jobs so that humans can handle the most important parts of being a soldier – making decisions. Though how the upcoming age of automated war will affect that judgment has yet to be seen. As long as we have occupying troops, we’ll have human casualties…but what if tele-operation and anonymous make occupation less necessary? War may gain a new face, one we may take decades to fully understand.

[image and video credits: Lockheed Martin]
[source: Lockheed Press Release]