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Army Hopes to Field Robotic Mules to Carry Gear Next Year

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The Army will begin equipping combat units next year with remote-controlled robotic vehicles designed to carry ammunition, water and other heavy combat necessities for soldiers, if officials at Fort Benning, Georgia, get their way.

The Army has been experimenting with the concept of robotic mules for more than a decade. But the performance of four competing prototypes of a Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET) during a recent operational test demonstration with units from the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne divisions has made believers out of officials from Benning’s Maneuver Capabilities and Integration Directorate (MCID).

“The operational test demonstration really showed that the capability is ready,” Col. Tom Nelson, director for Robotics Requirements Division at MCID, told reporters Tuesday.

The SMET is capable of hauling 1,000 pounds of soldier gear for 60 miles within 72 hours, and will also generate three kilowatts of power to charge the growing number of tactical electronic devices soldiers carry, according to officials at MCID, the organization that has the lead for developing and testing robotics and autonomous systems designed for Army brigade combat teams (BCTs).

Last November, the MCID conducted an operation test demonstration involving the four vendor prototypes in the SMET effort — Polaris Industries Inc.’s MRZR, General Dynamics Land Systems’ MUTT, HDT Global Hunter’s WOLF, and Howe and Howe Technologies Inc.’s Grizzly. The test equipped one BCT from the 10th Mountain and one from the 101st Airborne with eight prototypes from each vendor.

The units tested them at home station and during training at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, according to Benning officials.

The initial name for the project was Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport. But, when the test ended this spring, it was clear to MCID officials that issuing such a large vehicle to a squad would end up being a burden.

“The bottom line [as to] why we said it’s not appropriate as a squad system is, although the SMET has broad utility over many conditions … there are places where we ask our soldiers to go where nothing else can go — that very complex terrain, jungle terrain, steep embankments, water and dense urban environments,” said Don Sando, MCID director. “There are areas soldiers can walk and crawl and climb that we just couldn’t put a vehicle of this size with them.”

The plan now is to make SMET a battalion asset so squads, platoons and companies can benefit from the new vehicle but don’t have to maintain it.

“The battalion has the capability with its support company to move the SMET from where it is to where it needs to be and not burden the squad or the rifle platoon or the rifle company, for that matter, of having to administratively or tactically get it from where it is to where it needs to be,” Sando said.

The SMET is currently going through the requirements approval process in the Army Requirements Oversight Council.

Benning officials hope that process will be complete by this summer, so the Army can begin the down-select process to choose the SMET prototype that will go into production for fielding next year.

“So that is moving quickly because we want to begin fielding in fiscal year 2020,” Sando said.

Army officials would not say how many SMETs will be fielded, but the initial plan is to field “a number of systems to a few brigades, to include some of our training centers,” he said.

The next step of the SMET effort will involve refining “modular mission payloads” that can be mounted on the vehicle to conduct additional missions, Sando said.

“That’s the next logical step — what other payloads can I put on that … besides just carrying supplies?” he said. “Can I put sensors on it? Can I put communications relay systems on it? Can I put weapons systems on it? Our answer to all of those is yes.”

— Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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