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Marines Explore Robots & 5G Networks For Future Wars

WASHINGTON: The Marines have a bold vision for fast-paced future operations – but the current supply system can’t keep up. That’s why Marines at Miramar, Calif. are working with Gaithersburg, Md.-based Robotic Research, which also works with the Army, on unmanned resupply.

“There are missions that are essentially unsupportable…with our current construct,” Lt. Col. Brandon Newell told me. In a war zone, it’s too dangerous to send a single driver out by himself, so even routine supply runs in Afghanistan use either helicopters, a scarce resource, or heavily armed ground convoys, which require a lot of preparation only worth doing for big deliveries. If a unit needed one critical thing right now – ammunition, water, batteries for vital electronics – the supply system was often slow to respond.

That’s not good enough for the new combat concept called “distributed operations,” with small, dispersed teams moving quickly on their own so they don’t create big, static targets for enemy precision missiles. So the Marines have spent years experimenting with robotic resupply vehicles, ranging from the K-MAX unmanned helicopter in Afghanistan to mini-drones carrying individual clips of ammo, canteens, and packs of batteries. If the unmanned vehicle is lost, no human lives are lost with it, so you can quickly send out single, unescorted robots to meet those small-but-urgent needs for resupply.

“Now you can go point to point and be more dynamic in meeting the need,” Newell said, “rather than [having to] bulk up and aggregate everything together.”

With today’s technology, Newell and Robotic Research told me, you can put together multiple off-the-shelf systems – ground robots, mini-drones, static sensors – and have them share information over cellphone-style networks. That was 4G LTE in this summer’s experiment, but in future trials, it could the much higher-bandwidth 5G network that Verizon is about to build at Miramar.

The result? A team of unmanned systems that’s more than the sum of its parts. Each individual bot has enough on-board smarts to navigate to its destination on its own if communications are cut off by malfunction, obstructions, or enemy action. But when the network’s working, it effectively lets the robots see through each others’ eyes, vastly expanding their view of the battlefield and thus their ability to navigate it.

In a July experiment at Robotic Research’s Maryland test site, for example, an 8×8 ground robot called a MUTT set off with a pair of Pegasus mini-drones on its back. One Pegasus carried a sensor package: When needed, it took off from the MUTT and scouted ahead, reporting on part of the route that was out of sight around a corner. The second Pegasus carried a small but crucial resupply item, a battery, that it delivered to a different location than the MUTT’s main load, saving the ground vehicle a side trip and cutting delivery time. Another portion of the route was monitored by a prepositioned radar sensor called a SUAVI – a $400 version fits in your hand and runs off battery power for 24 hours – which fed real-time updates to the MUTT.

All four unmanned systems – the wheeled MUTT, Pegasus drones, and static SUAVI – shared data over a 4G LTE network. That’s not the kind of wireless that Robotic Research normally uses, executive VP Eddie Mottern told me, but the Marines wanted to check out widely available civilian technology and see how well it might work for the military.

4G LTE is widely available; Miramar has had a Verizon network on-base since 2018. But even back then, Newell said, it was clear that the emerging technology of 5G could offer much higher bandwidth and lower latency, allowing experimental robots at the base’s Autonomous Vehicle Proving Grounds to exchange much more data much more quickly. That’s part of the reason the Marines signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Verizon to upgrade the 4G network at Miramar to a “living lab” for a form of 5G known as “ultra wideband.”

Meanwhile, Newell and his team are running models and simulations, holding brainstorming sessions, and preparing for a second robotic resupply experiment for 2021, this time to be held at Miramar itself. “We will have a more integrated, more capable prototype next May,” he told me.

Read the full article on BreakingDefense.