From the dismounted soldier to the Army’s still developing combat vehicles, the force is putting robotics in at all levels, and the place where that’s getting the fieldwork is the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

The center’s commander, Maj. Gen. Gary Brito, told Army Times that when he spent nearly two years commanding the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, he saw more and more drones and other tech being used by opposing forces against the brigade combat teams training there.

So, the training to use and counter those types of tech should begin at MCoE, he said.

“If those soldiers see it here while training, learning and mastering doctrine and application, when they go to the field they certainly will know how to employ these things,” Brito said.

The Maneuver Center of Excellence, at Fort Benning, Georgia, is already planning a robotics symposium early next year and have had events partnering with Georgia Tech and other colleges in the Peach State this past year.

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Back in April, the Maneuver Center’s deputy to the commanding general, Don Sando, said that ongoing work in robotics at the Fort Benning location is leading to the likely creation of a Robotics Center of Innovation for the Army.

They held a first-ever Robotics Industry Day this summer. Both are an effort to get robotics development and testing to the soldier level quicker.

Planning and development at Benning led to another first when, also in April, soldiers used remote-controlled robots to breach lanes for tanks and other vehicles in a training exercise in Grafenwoehr, Germany.

Soldiers also used an aerial drone with sensors to detect contamination while another drone conducted aerial reconnaissance.

Also at Fort Benning, soldiers have been experimenting with throwable robots for doing recon on building interiors, putting aerial drones with soldiers at the squad level and initial feedback on variants of the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport, which is now with the 101st Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division and an as yet identified Marine unit at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for testing.

A competition at Fort Benning included a torture test in which 10 initial applicants ran through swamps, dense forests and declines in rough terrain.

Four made the cut for the next phase of selection.

Those include: the MRZR X, based off the Polaris MRZR currently in service with the Marines; the General Dynamics 4x4 Multi-Utility Tactical Transport or MUTT; the Howe and Howe RS2-H1; and the HDT Global Hunter WOLF, or Wheeled Offload Logistics Follower.

The vehicle must carry enough gear for a nine-soldier squad — nine rucks, two fuel jugs, two water jugs and three days’ worth of Meals, Ready to Eat — as well as carry batteries and charge them while on mission.

It must also carry 1,000 pounds, travel 60 miles in 72 hours, and charge up at a 3-kilowatt rate while stationary and a 1-kilowatt rate while moving

Army officials are expected to decide on which SMET submission of the four being evaluated will be selected by early 2020.

Other testing has been ongoing with the Common Robotics System Individual, which is a 20 pounds or less ground robot that can carry a variety of payloads from sensors to cameras. That capability would be put into the squads.

Another key advancement for teaming soldiers and robots will come from ongoing work at Fort Benning and elsewhere on a common controller that’s expected for selection by mid-2019. The controller would help give any soldier a simplified way to control both aerial and ground drones on the same type of platform.

And that brings developers closer to a farther-out goal of a single soldier controlling a drone swarm or multiple drones on both terrains simultaneously.

In October, a rifle company and scout troop will run through an exercise on Fort Benning as academic and industry representatives observe, looking for tasks of the company, platoon and squad that might be done better with robots.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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