Photo of Talon IV Reset Robotic Vehicle.
Army Staff Sgt. Kevin O'Conner, a combat engineer with the South Carolina Army National Guard's 122nd Engineer Clearance Company, examines parts of a Talon IV Reset robotic vehicle while conducting training at the unit's home station in Graniteville, S.C. (Photo: 2nd Lt. Jorge Intriago)

The use of robots continues to grow within the National Guard and Guard members are likely to soon see additional robots with expanded capabilities. Robots are currently used for a number of mission sets including engineering, explosive ordnance disposal, reconnaissance and detection of chemical and biological agents. Future robots will expand on the capabilities of the current Talon series of robots, as well as take on additional, more generalized functions within a unit, said Bryan McVeigh, the project manager in the Force Projection section for the U.S. Army's Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support.

Those robots range from small, 25-pound robots to large-scale versions capable of carrying more than 1,000 pounds. The smallest is the Common Robotic System - Individual, used to clear buildings or confined areas, identify enemy positions and scout for explosive hazards. Weighing in at 25 pounds, the new iteration is smaller and lighter than current versions. "It's designed so you can basically carry it in a MOLLE pack [rucksack]," said McVeigh. "You're no longer lugging 40 to 50 pounds of robot to execute a mission."

At the opposite end of the scale is the Squad Multi-purpose Equipment Transport (SMET). "It's a golf cart-sized robot designed to carry a squad's basic load, up to 1,000 pounds," said McVeigh. "It can carry [the squad's] water, ammunition and their rucksacks to support a 72-hour mission." Still under testing and development, the final version of the SMET may also have a remotely operated weapons system mounted to it. The technology for that already exists in the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, which allows vehicle crews to operate machine guns and other weapons from inside the vehicle, rather than an exposed turret position. The question, said McVeigh, is what distance the operator needs to be from the SMET when the weapons are used.

"In a perfect world, we want [that distance] to be 500 to 1000 meters away," said McVeigh. "That way you are engaging a target where the soldier is out of harm's way." McVeigh acknowledged that distance isn't always possible, or practical, on the battlefield, adding that in reality the greater likelihood is the SMET operator, and other squad members, would be in a nearby covered or concealed position using the SMET to provide suppressive fire.

The new series of robots are designed to have integrated controllers running from a common application-based system. "If I can have a common controller that is basically app-based, the same button you use on one [robot] for forward is the same button you're going to use on all of them for forward," said McVeigh. "It significantly reduces the cognitive burden on Soldiers who are entering 16, 24 and beyond hours on a mission because it's rote memory."

A common app system also allows an easy way to adapt to future control function needs, he said. "The controller I pick today is not going to be the controller we're going to need five years from now," said McVeigh. "As long as we are building all of our systems apps [so they are integrated and expandable] the toggles, the buttonology, whether I have it residing on Controller A or Controller B, is irrelevant." Having that common controller and app system also makes for easier mission planning, he said. Up until now, the controller and the operating system have been specific to each robot series, said McVeigh.

While the current and near-future robot designs all require a human operator, other systems are in development that allow for more autonomous operations, including one designed for route clearance. Currently, engineers running many route clearance missions use the High Mobility Engineer Excavator (HMEE) - essentially an armored backhoe - to dig out and neutralize roadside bombs. The excavator is driven by a soldier, often in convoy with other route clearance vehicles, such as the Buffalo mine resistant ambush protected vehicle. Future systems may automate excavation of the explosive device. Other items are under development that would eliminate the soldier from the excavator entirely.