The Army wants drone backhoes and MRAPs

And you thought this week’s news about the Navy’s fancy stealth drone was good. Not to be outdone by the sea service, the Army this week revealed that it’s looking to develop autonomous robo-backhoes and robot versions the military’s famous armored trucks, known as MRAPs. That’s right, the Army wants to have robot trucks prowling ...

U.S. Army
U.S. Army
U.S. Army

And you thought this week's news about the Navy's fancy stealth drone was good. Not to be outdone by the sea service, the Army this week revealed that it's looking to develop autonomous robo-backhoes and robot versions the military's famous armored trucks, known as MRAPs.

That's right, the Army wants to have robot trucks prowling battlefields for hidden explosives, finding and disabling or destroying the devices before they can harm people, according to this May 3 request for information that was spotted by a flying Blackberry with a drinking problem.

I have to say, this mission fits many people's job description for drones perfectly: dirty, dull and dangerous. If ever there was a dirty, dull and dangerous job for a drone, it's driving slowly down war-torn roads or paths while hunting for something buried in dirt or debris that could blow a person to smithereens.

And you thought this week’s news about the Navy’s fancy stealth drone was good. Not to be outdone by the sea service, the Army this week revealed that it’s looking to develop autonomous robo-backhoes and robot versions the military’s famous armored trucks, known as MRAPs.

That’s right, the Army wants to have robot trucks prowling battlefields for hidden explosives, finding and disabling or destroying the devices before they can harm people, according to this May 3 request for information that was spotted by a flying Blackberry with a drinking problem.

I have to say, this mission fits many people’s job description for drones perfectly: dirty, dull and dangerous. If ever there was a dirty, dull and dangerous job for a drone, it’s driving slowly down war-torn roads or paths while hunting for something buried in dirt or debris that could blow a person to smithereens.

So, the Army is interested in talking to contractors who can come up with kits allowing them to convert some of its High Mobility Engineer Excavators (backhoes on steroids, they’re armored and can drive way faster than their civilian counterparts) and RG-31 MRAPs into remote-controlled bomb finders — officially dubbed the Route Clearance and Interrogation System (RCIS).

Click here to see why they want these things to be unmanned.

Specifically, the kits must allow the vehicles to be operated by a soldier in another vehicle or for them to automatically follow a "pathfinder" vehicle or be programmed to drive along a preplanned route using GPS coordinates. However, the trucks must maintain their ability to be driven by a human the old fashioned way.

The Army envisions the trucks operating in nearly every environment, from urban rubble to open desert. The RCIS "will operate in terrain varying from open rolling to complex terrain; in confined areas; with mobility on primary and secondary roads and trails, and during limited cross-country movements," reads the RfI. "Operations will take place during daylight and during night, in limited visibility, and in inclement weather."

The two vehicles that comprise the RCIS system will have tools that allow for slightly different, complimentary missions. The backhoe will allow troops to remotely dig up, identify, and "neutralize" deeply buried explosives "in confined/urban areas" and prevent enemies from planting bombs in routes that have already been cleared by U.S. troops, according to the document.

The robo-MRAP will allow the troops to find and "neutralize" bombs with equipment such as "an explosive hazard roller, debris blower, electronic countermeasures device, infrared neutralizing device [to disable laser tripwires], and trip/command wire detonating device."

The trucks will be equipped with a variety of cameras and diagnostic systems allowing the operator to monitor its progress, the world around the vehicle and its health as if he or she were sitting behind the wheel, according to the RfI. Still, the beasts should be able to automatically recognize and warn the operator to the presence of any vehicle the size of a "Toyota Tacoma" pickup truck or larger and any people "standing upright wearing an Army Combat Uniform" who happen to be in front of or around the vehicles. (I guess you’re out of luck if you’re stranded in a Mini Cooper that’s in the path of one of these things.)

These are hardly the U.S. military’s first ground-based drones. The military has fielded thousands of small bomb-disposal robots, and the Army has tested a six-wheeled robot-jeep that serves as a pack mule in Afghanistan.

That’s nothing compared to Israel, which has wholeheartedly embraced ground robots to conduct dull, dirty, and dangerous missions for at least a decade. The Israel Defense Force has used robot bulldozers since late 2003 to "knock down buildings, flatten olive groves and clear paths for advancing soldiers," according to this BBC News article. Then there’s what might be the world’s first killer ground robot, the IDF’s Guardium.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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