WASHINGTON (April 13, 2015) – Doctrine drives training and modernization, and new doctrine to be released in January 2016, will provide impetus for growth in the rapidly-evolving field of robotics, Lt. Col. Matt Dooley predicted.
Dooley, chief of the lethality branch at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, discussed the future of robotics in the Army during the National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference and Exhibition, here, April 8.
Dooley said the new doctrine, “U.S. Army Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy,” will drive science and technology investments, inform acquisition decisions, further the integration of robots throughout the force and codify the path forward.
Currently, there are references to manned-unmanned teaming and science and technology investments in Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, Pamphlet 525-3-1, also called the “Army Operating Concept.” But those references are in the appendix of that document. Right now, there is no single Army doctrinal manual devoted wholly to robotics.
Robotics consists of both ground and air vehicles, but Dooley’s focus at the panel discussion was the ground aspects.
While the sky is full of unmanned air vehicles, Dooley said, squads have yet to see a similar number of systems in use on the ground, although there are some being used for explosive ordnance disposal and improvised explosive device, or IED, clearing operations.
Systems that a squad might find useful, he said, are those that can carry supplies, locate targets, and carry out surveillance and reconnaissance operations.
Dooley stressed, however, that no work is being done to give unmanned ground systems autonomous authority to engage targets.
War is essentially a human endeavor, he said, and the trigger-puller will be the Soldier. Besides that, Department of Defense, or DoD, Directive 3000.09 prohibits robots from using lethal force. The directive reads, in part: “Human-supervised autonomous weapon systems may be used to select and engage targets, with the exception of selecting humans as targets.”
That restriction does not negate the tremendous capabilities robots bring to the battlefield, Dooley said.
ROBOTIC ANTI-ARMOR SYSTEM PREVIEW
Dooley was carrying a draft of the doctrine, which is being reviewed by various stakeholders – so he could not go into any detail about what is in it. But he did provide overall themes.
Robotic Anti-Armor System, or RAS, will tie robotics in with future expeditionary maneuver capabilities that will enable mutual support and mission command across extended distances, where forces are widely dispersed, he said.
Robotics will help Soldiers make contact with the enemy under conditions favorable to Soldiers, while presenting multiple dilemmas to the enemy. The human will always be in the loop when deciding to use lethal force, he said.
The new doctrinal manual will also cover the value of robots in force protection, he said, which brings up a critical question. What cost will the Army and the United States be willing to pay to develop robotics systems that can demonstrably save lives? It is “a morale and ethical decision” that will have to be made, he said.
Dooley explained that very expensive widgets can be added to robotics that would increase force protection, but a cost and a capabilities curve will need to be drawn to determine just how much Soldier protection the nation is willing to pay for.
Safeguards will also need to be built into such systems, he said, citing the DoD guidance which reads: “Semi-autonomous weapon systems that are onboard or integrated with unmanned platforms must be designed such that, in the event of degraded or lost communications, the system does not autonomously select and engage individual targets or specific target groups that have not been previously selected by an authorized human operator.”
With the floor open for questions, a representative from industry asked why the Army would consider spending limited resources to develop robotics capabilities that will likely end up “flawed.” Additionally, he said, the Army has already been successful using contractors to drive supply convoys, so there is not likely a need for autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles.
“The Army will need to articulate what levels [of protection] we get from our investments,” Dooley said, and demonstrate that such autonomous robotics systems are not “pie-in-the-sky” investments.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Joe Bell, also on the panel, said “there’s an urgent need to reduce risk [to Soldiers] today,” not 10 years hence. “That’s our No. 1 motivator.”
Bell, now involved in the commercial defense industry, laid out a business model for robotics, saying it can cost $200,000 to armor some vehicles, not including storing and maintaining the armor kits. That would have to be factored into the cost-benefit analysis of using an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle.
A semi-autonomous system used in a leader-follower configuration would also save lives, because if the vehicle hit a mine or took enemy fire, no one would be killed.
Bell said if current technology were applied to a leader-follower system, as few as two Soldiers could convoy four to eight trucks.
Although there would be fewer Soldiers for the enemy to target, that also brings up the problem of less firepower. This issue could be addressed, he said, through mission command, meaning the commander would need to closely monitor the situation and have backup tactics, techniques and procedures in place to handle the unexpected.
Jim Parker, another panelist, argued against the notion that robotics is too expensive or not ready for development.
He said the Army is already making robotics work. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, for instance, autonomous vehicles are being tested to shuttle visitors and personnel around the installations.
Parker said that such incremental improvements will serve as building blocks toward the ultimate goal of off-road, difficult-weather and terrain negotiation. Parker is the associate director for Ground Vehicle Robotics, Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.