The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has been working on a project that partners dismounted soldiers with autonomous robots and drones called Squad X. It’s designed to provide soldiers in the field with more information about their surroundings.
Historically, one of the most persistent issues on the battlefield is something known as the “fog of war” — a catch-all phrase that describes the uncertainty of one’s surroundings. Technology has done wonders to help eliminate this: scouts on horseback, balloonists, airplanes, and satellites have been able to deliver more and more information to commanders, allowing them to respond to their enemies and surroundings more effectively. The introduction of drones, robots, and sensors onto the battlefield promise illuminate one’s surroundings further, which is where Squad X appears to come in.
DARPA first tested out the Squad X program last year in California with a week-long test, which had US Marines using drones and robots to coordinate their movements and to detect potential threats in the field. The project uses a variety of tools to gather and transmit information to Marines and soldiers: autonomous robots that can drive around their locations; aerial drones that can survey their immediate surroundings; and off-the-shelf Android tablets to take in all of that information and present it to soldiers on the ground. An artificial intelligence system processed the information from the sensors, and presented the relevant data to the participants.
There are two systems at the heard of this project: one from CACI called BITS Electronic Attack Module (BEAM) Squad System (BSS), which allows personnel to “detect, locate, and attack specific threats in the radio frequency and cyber domains,” and Lockheed Martin’s Augmented Spectral Situational Awareness and Unaided Localization for Transformative Squads (ASSAULTS) system, which uses drones and robots to locate targets and engage them. DARPA says that the systems provide “small squads battalion-level insights and intelligence.”
Squad X program manager Lt. Col. Phil Root explained that the systems that they were testing don’t involve weapons. “The human is of course involved with any lethal action, but at this point, it’s about establishing superior situational awareness.” What the system is designed to do is to gather the relevant information, process it, and then allow soldiers and Marines to act on what they learn.
Lockheed Martin’s ASSAULTS system outfits Marines with vests rigged with sensors and accompanied by the drones and robots, who then moved through desert and simulated urban environments. DARPA notes that the robots are “always exploring and making the most of the current situation” to gather information and keep an eye on their surroundings. Another experiment included a “super node” an autonomous off-road Polaris loaded down with sensors.
Like other ongoing tests that the Army is conducting with autonomous armored vehicles, DARPA has noted that the tests aren’t just to figure out how to use the systems, but how the tactics that the soldiers use will change. Root said that there was a “steady evolution of tactics” that came with their robotic teammate. DARPA wasn’t just developing the tools for the soldiers, Root says, “but rather develop the hardware and the tactics that allow this to operate seamlessly within the close-combat ground environment.”