White Sands Missile Range, N.M. -- Inside a mock village on the southwest edge of the 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Army tests combat systems that can trace their origins to the Roomba vacuum cleaner and the X-Box video game.
Spec. Ronald Wagle is a 23-year-old video gamer turned grunt with Company C in the 2nd Combined Army Battalion of the Army Evaluation Task Force. The handheld gizmo he uses to control a robot "is almost exactly the same as an X-box controller," he said.
Wagle uses the controller to deftly steer the robot, whose camera-equipped head gives it more than a passing resemblance to the R2-D2 robot in Star Wars, to check buildings in the village for weapons, including trip wires that could set off an improvised explosive device.
The robot, built by iRobot Corp., the same company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner, features cameras that can see in daylight and dark, has flexible treads that allow it to climb stairs, and radio links to connect it to an operator and a Tactical Operation Center.
Capt. Darius Anania, Wagle's company commander, says the robot is a lifesaver. IEDs have caused more combat casualties for U.S. forces in Iraq than any other weapon since the 2003 invasion than any other weapon, and this year they account for more than half the casualties in Afghanistan.
Dispatching robots, which the Army calls Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles, instead of troops or manned vehicles to check for the explosive devices will reduce casualties, said Anania, speaking from his experience as the executive officer of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle unit in Iraq.
One of his Bradleys hit an IED that consisted of 18 155mm artillery shells bundled together, shattering the armored vehicle and literally melting it, he said. A robot would have been able to detect the device, saving the Bradley crew's lives. "We needed this 10 years ago," Anania said.
The high-tech systems the Army is testing and refining at White Sands Missile Range are both the remnants of its ambitious and now canceled $160 billion Future Combat Systems program and the core of a new battlefield modernization program the service plans to develop to replace it.
The Army intends to spin out systems developed for FCS as part of the brigade combat team modernization program headquartered at Fort Bliss, Texas, which adjoins White Sands, said Jerry Tyree, director of integration for the program. These include the tracked robot, an aerial robot, tactical and urban unmanned ground sensors, a missile system, and a battlefield network to link them all together.
The service plans to field these systems to seven infantry brigade combat teams between 2011 and 2014 at a cost of less than $2 billion, said Paul Mehney, an Army spokesman.
To ensure the equipment can deliver as promised in combat, the Army has been testing it at White Sands for more than a year, with soldiers providing insight on what works and, just as important, what doesn't in the safety of a training environment, according to Tyree. "We don't always get it right the first time," he said.
The insights the soldiers provide in the field tests might seem simple, but they have proved valuable in the iterative development of high-tech gear that can survive tough use in combat. For example, the first versions of the 30-pound tracked robot did not have a handle, Tyree said. Soldiers picked up the robot by the sensor head, damaging the delicate electronics inside. iRobot now fields a version of the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle with a handle welded to the chassis, keeping the circuitry safe.
The Army also learned that the black camera on the unmanned aerial vehicle, which resembles a beer keg powered by a lawn mower engine, was easy for a mock enemy force to spot against a blue sky and track back to its origin, said British Army Col. Matthew van Grutten, who helps develop operational test scenarios for the enemy force that engages the Army Evaluation Task Force. Again a simple solution to a simple problem: "Paint it gray," van Grutten said, so the aircraft blends better into the sky.
Col. Randy Lane, who commands the 1,150-person task force brigade, says the tests also teach troops how to use the new gear tactically. Last week, a tracked robot operator used the vehicle's remote camera to detect an IED trip wire installed a few feet above the ground in a building doorway. But the operator did not scan the entire doorway and when troops entered the building they hit a waist-level trip wire, triggering a fake IED. This would have caused multiple casualties, Lane said. The lesson to scan an entire doorway for trip wires will be included in future tactics for tracked robots.
The tracked robot and the aerial sensor pack cameras require broadband communications systems, which today's Army infantry brigades don't have, Tyree said. During the past week, the task force has tested the wideband version of the Joint Tactical Radio System. Tyree said the task force uses development models of the radio system, which is mounted in Humvees equipped with a network integration kit, and last week used the system to transmit an image for the first time.
Task force officials declined to provide details on how far the image was broadcast, or how quickly it could be downloaded, but Nextgov has learned the radios can transmit up to 30 miles at a rate of about 1.5 megabytes per second. The average speed of a residential Internet broadband connection is 7 MBps.
The development of advanced battlefield wireless networks is among the most important projects at White Sands because the networks will provide commanders at all levels with the tactical information they need to "make quality decisions," said Maj. Gen. James Terry, director of the Army future forces integration directorate at Fort Bliss.
The task force is testing systems that will give leaders down to the company and platoon levels better and faster network access, he said, while warning, "We don't need to give them more bandwidth than they need, because they will use it, even if they don't need it."
Terry said as the Army starts to field the advanced systems that are being tested at White Sands, it must determine the right kind of network connections for each unit operating on the battlefield.