“I’ll Be Back;” Autonomous Combat Units Move Forward

(c) K.B. Sherman, 2003

The unsettling future combat environment envisioned in the “Terminator” movies may have lurched a step closer to reality recently when DARPA unveiled two prototype unmanned ground combat vehicles and one unmanned aerial vehicle. DARPA’s vision is "of filling the battlespace with unmanned systems that are networked with manned systems; the idea is not simply to replace people with machines, but to team people with robots to create more capable, agile, and cost-effective force that lowers the risk of US casualties." The Future Combat System (FCS) is to be a networked system-of-systems that includes manned and unmanned ground combat vehicles (UGCVs), along with various unmanned air vehicles. The goal is to develop Units of Action that have the lethality and survivability of an M1-based heavy force, but with the agility of today's lighter forces. FCS brigades are to be able to deploy anywhere in the world within 96 hours.

The first of two new UGCVs, the 1,500 pound Team Retarius, rolled out during a ceremony at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM), in January, while Team Spinner rolled out its seven ton version in February. DARPA and the Army have sponsored the development of the two prototype UGCV technology demonstration platforms as a part of the jointly funded Future Combat Systems program. UGCV prototypes represent an advance in vehicle design embodying high mobility, efficiency, deployability, and resilience in a future combat environment without endangering human crews.

The Team Spinner UGCV will carry an assortment of payloads weighing approximately 4,500 pounds and is close to the size of the Future Combat Systems’ Armed Reconnaissance Vehicle.

The Team Retarius UGCV will carry a variety of payloads weighing approximately 350 pounds and is close to the size the Future Combat Systems is considering for its “mule” type vehicle. FCS envisions the “mule” vehicle in a variety of roles from direct support to dismounted troops to light reconnaissance as part of a network of combat entities. During testing it climbed over an obstacle exceeding one meter, operated unrefueled for more than 450 kilometers over a 14 day period, and traveled cross-country at 40 kilometers per hour. With six independently articulated drive wheels, it can climb over an array of obstacles, and “doesn’t care whether or not it’s inverted.” Should it roll over, the UGCV’s suspension assembly can rotate it back to the ground in the inverted state, and it can then move-out again.

Both designs can accommodate severe events such as rollovers and continue operation upside down. Each are also configured for air drop and long-range operations to simplify early entry, and reduce their logistics burden. Both vehicles are also highly mobile and can obtain very low profile configurations to reduce their detectability. Power systems aboard each vehicle are advanced hybrid electric to provide long silent watch and movement as well as enable unique payload packaging strategies.

Team Retarius was established by Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control (Orlando, FL) and includes team members Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM), Rod Millen Special Vehicles (Huntington Beach, CA), BAE Systems (Syosset, New York), and MSE High Performance Materials Group (Newark, DE). Team Spinner, lead by Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA), includes team members Boeing (St. Louis, MO), Timoney Technology (Navan, Ireland), and PEI Electronics Inc. (Huntsville, AL).

Also in February, the Frontier Systems (Irvine, CA) Hummingbird A160 vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aerial vehicle successfully conducted its first forward flight at Logistics Airport, Victorville, CA. The rotary wing craft accelerated to 20 knots at a low altitude before climbing to 4,000 feet MSL, where it accelerated to 62 knots and remained airborne for approximately one hour. Using only 50% power, the Hummingbird demonstrated a quiet flight mode especially useful for ISR in an urban environment and suggesting where its designers envision warfare to be located in the next several decades. This was the fifth flight of the four-blade A160 since November 2002.

Hummingbird – about the size of the Predator (a fixed-wing UAV) employs a unique hingeless rigid rotor that permits vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) with very low disk loading and rotor tip speeds, resulting in the potential for range in excess of 2,000 NM and endurance of up to 48 hours. The A160 concept is being evaluated for surveillance and targeting, communications and data relay, lethal and non-lethal weapons delivery, assured crew recovery, resupply of forces in the field, and special operations missions in support of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and other Agency needs. The A-160 Hummingbird is a DARPA project to produce an unmanned helicopter that can fly 2,500 nautical miles over 40 hours and carry 300 pounds of air-to-ground missiles. The Army wants to take over the project in 2003 (years ahead of schedule) in order to ensure that the aircraft ends up being what the Army wants it to be. A production decision would be made around 2006. The A-160 has a 300hp internal combustion engine and a three-bladed rotor. The Army plans to add a tactical common data link in order to receive the aircraft's data and direct its flight and weapons. The three vehicles are integral to the concept embodied in DARPA’s recently-published Strategic Plan 2003, Section 3.3, which deals specifically with “Networked Manned and Unmanned Systems.”

The Team Retarius UGCV is rolled-out during its January introduction