Army mulls options for Robotics Innovation Center

The Fort Benning-based center would work with academia and industry on integrating robotics and autonomous systems into combat teams.

The Army is considering opening a Robotics Innovation Center at Fort Benning, Ga.

Don Sando, deputy to the commanding general at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, announced the plan at the Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

Whether physical or virtual, the Robotics Innovation Center will be a chance for the Training and Doctrine Command's Maneuver Robotics and Autonomous Systems Office to work with other Defense Department groups, academia and industry. The center might not bring these groups together physically, Sando told GCN, but its goal is to unites them around a shared purpose – integrating robotics and autonomous systems into current and future combat teams.

Within the year, details will be available on the  Robotics Innovation Center launch and membership, Sando said.

One of the first opportunities to bring these groups together will be at an industry day the Army plans for June. When the event is announced it will include a challenge related to autonomous systems, and “if you think you can be a part of the solution to that problem come on down [to the industry day] and let’s talk,” Sando said.

A second event is being planned for October, aptly named Bot-tober Fest, that will include two challenges: directed or kinetic energy and underwater operations. “Shooting robots and swimming robots,” Sando explained. “It’ll be neat.”

The Army demonstrated robotic systems' potential at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany this week when remote-controlled vehicles breached a barricade, Sando said.

“We did a robotic breach today, which has never been done before. This is a historic moment,” 1st Lt. Cody Rothschild told Stars and Stripes. The demonstration involved using remote-controlled U.K. Terrier engineering vehicles to clear a simulated minefield and breach a tank trench. The Robotic Complex Breach Concept demonstration also used unmanned aerial vehicles for observation, targeting and sensing of air conditions.

There are already plans for a second demonstration this fall at Fort Benning and a third a year from now at Fort Lewis in Yakima, Wash. These demonstrations will be informed by the results of the exercise in Germany, Sando said.

The Defense Department has developed an Unmanned Systems Roadmap that is currently undergoing review before its release, according to Jose Gonzalez, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

Autonomy and robotic systems are both listed as priorities in the National Defense Strategy, a summary of which was released earlier this year.

“The drive to develop new technologies is relentless, expanding to more actors with lower barriers of entry, and moving at accelerating speed,” the summary said. “New technologies include advanced computing, 'big data' analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology -- the very technologies that ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.”

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