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DoD Intentions With Intelligent Robotics and Autonomous Systems for Ground Forces

Unmanned ground systems have been around and in use in DoD for decades. They were used throughout WWII for various functions considered too dangerous for humans, like demolition missions or advancing on a battle front to draw enemy fire. DoD leaders have long signaled that this type of robotics will be critical to DoD’s strategy over the next decade. What’s exciting today is the explosion of possibilities as we couple artificial intelligence with modern day sensors and versatile all-terrain ground platforms.

This excitement is transitioning to real activities. One of the most important to track is the Intelligent Robotics and Autonomous Systems (IRAS). DoD has been working this for years, there is an existing strategy and plenty of contracting has already occurred. But now things are heating up. The FY21 President’s Budget dedicated serious funding to this activity which is designed to improve how robotic ground systems can improve support to the military.  The IRAS program, which encompasses systems that can perform autonomously, make intelligent decisions based on what they “sense” and carry out successful missions (with or without a human in the mix), will now have the funding it needs to really accelerate robotics into the force. IRAS is a joint DoD program which can support all the services, but the Army is the lead service for this effort. They are tasked with creating and implementing a strategy that synchronizes all the different robotics programs in existence, and steer towards the best possible platforms for the future. As AI improves, the situational awareness that an unmanned vehicle can bring to the battlefield also improves.

The five capability areas in the current Army strategy are:

  1. Increase Situational Awareness (current near-term priority).
  2. Lighten the Soldiers’ physical and cognitive workloads (near-term priority).
  3. Sustain the force with increased distribution, throughput, and efficiency (mid-term priority).
  4. Facilitate movement and maneuver (far-term priority).
  5. Protect the force (mid-term priority).

The Army has decided to engage with commercial partners through demonstrations and competitions that show their operational needs and the technical capabilities of the commercial sector, and we expect a continued long term engagement with industry via demonstrations and competitions. We also expect use of the standard procurement process (RFIs/RFPs etc), but those that respond will be better positioned to win if they have engaged in the demonstrations process. Let us know if you want more info on the next ones.

The Army is also demonstrating new capabilities in the IRAS program they intend on fielding that are ready to scale. Any company seeking to engage with the Army on robots should be familiar with these:

  • Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET)
  • Leader-Follower Program
  • Spy Tank

The Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET) is the first “large” ground robotic platform to transition into production. This is known as a “robotic mule” since its purpose is to carry the heavy loads (up to 1000 pounds) that soldiers used to haul around.  Currently, it is tele-operated, but they are exploring several “Modular Mission Payload” options to add capabilities which will improve its autonomy.  It can operate over 60 miles in 72 hours and has a Power Generation of 3KW stationary and 1KW when mobile.

The Leader-Follower program is aimed at improving logistics and transportation of goods.  It’s an autonomous truck convoy (trucks can be manned or not).  This is a possible replacement for the Palletized Load Systems (PLS), Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, and M915 Truck Tractors.  Future versions incrementally improve the system, enabling operations in bad weather and over rough terrain in a contested EMS environment, and eventually, with no “leader”.

The Spy Tank, also known as a Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV(L)), is operated by a mother tank to perform reconnaissance missions. It is intended to directly augment the battlefield. The first prototypes include a tethered and an untethered unmanned aerial system.  QinetiQ and Textron won the contract earlier this year.


We are tracking these and other Army robotics programs, as well as the autonomous projects of the Navy and Air Force. Let us know if we can dive deeper into any of these topics for you.

Other topics of interest:

A Decision-Maker’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence –  This plain english overview will give you the insights you need to drive corporate decisions.

The Future of AI Policy is Largely Unwritten – Congressman Will Hurd provides insight on the emerging technologies of AI and Machine Learning.

The Intelligence Workstation of the Future – The Intelligence Workstation of the Future will empower analysts in new ways, combining the most modern analytical and visualization tools with enterprise security and governance technologies.

OODA’s Special Reporting on the Federal Technology Market. – More reporting for the CEO seeking to accelerate growth in the federal sector.

CTO Guide to the Business of Robotics – Insights on the megatrend of robotics

Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris Ward (Commander, U.S. Navy (Retired)) has over 30 years of experience helping the Department of Defense (DoD) solve difficult technology requirements. She has a proven track record of building, maintaining, securing and certifying technology solutions for use within DoD. She works with Industry to identify key opportunities and provides strategic guidance and support. She is a strategic analyst and cybersecurity professional who has deep expertise in improving enterprise cybersecurity.