Last year, for instance, the Army deployed four Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support Systems to support a squad in Afghanistan as a test. Each semi-autonomous robot, which was derived from a six-wheel all-terrain vehicle that had a flat bed and no seats, was designed to carry 1,200 pounds of soldiers' gear.
The test had mixed results.
Hatfield reported that "soldiers being soldiers," the troops loaded up the robotic vehicles with as much as 4,000 pounds of gear and then complained the vehicles weren't fast enough.
While the vehicles were designed to be able to drive themselves, the soldiers never let them run autonomously.
"As they moved around the battlefield, they used it to carry sand bags and pickets and wire and water," Hatfield said. "The soldier had to use a controller to drive it forward... They did not trust it, so they never used the autonomous aspect. They didn't want it running over someone."
A large vehicular robot follows a squad, potentially carrying ammunition, water and other supplies. (Photo: 5D Robotics)
Greg Hudas, the Army's chief engineer for ground vehicle robotics, told Computerworld that soldiers' trust is critical to having robots work with the squads.
"If the soldier doesn't trust it as a teammate, the soldier won't use the technology and we're back to square one," Hudas said. "There has to be an element of trust. Those squads are very delicate structures. The machines have to fit in perfectly."
The Army's vision is to make robotics part of the unit, but that is going to take trust and a whole new level of human-robot cooperation.
"We want to make it seamless. We want to make a robot an actual squad member," Hudas said. "And whether it's a human or a machine, we want to make it transparent. Each member in a squad has a set of duties on a mission. If we replace a squad member with a robot, we want people to feel comfortable with the robot acting as a teammate. That involves some trust and performance issues. That robot has to be able to keep up with them."
The Army is working on a robot that would serve in a critical, potentially life-saving capacity.
One project is an autonomous vehicle that will lead military convoys in order to search for IEDs in the road. If a robotic vehicle finds an explosive in the road, another robot would dig it out, protecting the soldiers further back in the convoy from deadly explosions, Hudas said.
The Army also is working on semi-autonomous vehicles that would allow a driver to step outside the vehicle or perform other tasks while the vehicle takes over driving, Hudas said.