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Military robo-choppers prove themselves on Afghan battlefields

The Marine Corps has deployed two remotely piloted helicopters to Afghanistan, each of which can airlift 6,000 pounds, and the Army has tested an unmanned ground vehicle that can carry a half-ton load, top service officials told members of the House Armed Services Committee Thursday.

The Marines started using the unmanned K-Max helicopters in Afghanistan in December 2011. Since then, the GPS-guided aircraft "have proven themselves in day and night operations, and bad weather conditions," ferrying cargo to forward outposts without risking the lives of pilots and crews, Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Mills said in response to a question from Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., about battlefield robotics at the hearing of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee.

The robo-chopper was developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. in partnership Kaman Aerospace through a $45.8 million demonstration contract awarded in 2010. Lockheed won a $47 million demonstration and evaluation contract from the Army in October 2011.

The Army has deployed a fleet of 2,500 robots, loaded with cameras and sensors, built by iRobot to help ground troops remotely detect crude bombs. Army Lt. Gen. William Phillips, deputy to the assistant secretary of Defense for acquisition, logistics and technology, told Hartzler the robots, which soldiers operate using Xbox-like controllers, work very well in combat.

The Army also has fielded for testing in Afghanistan a large unmanned ground vehicle developed by Lockheed, the Squad Mission Support System, which can carry up to a half-ton of cargo.

The diesel engine powered robot, known as the Workhorse, is operated by a soldier equipped with a vest-mounted computer and radio, but it also can operate autonomously with a built-in GPS navigation system.

Both Mills and Phillips said the Marines and the Army need to develop and field more robotic systems to lighten loads carried by troops in combat.

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