An Army requirement for an autonomous equipment-carrying robot could be familiar to hunters and sportsmen: an all-terrain vehicle. Polaris's MRZR-X robotic vehicle could help infantrymen carry the extra supplies into battle—beans, bullets, and gadgets—that will help them survive on their own longer.
As a rule of thumb, human beings can carry about third of their body weight for extended periods. Ffter that, they become significantly impaired. More than fifty years, ago, the Army historian S.L.A. Marshall wrote his classic . Marshall warned against overloading the infantryman, who traditionally had to carry everything on his back into battle. The heavier the load, the less mobile the soldier was and unable to accomplish the mission.
Fifty years later, the Army still hasn't taken the advice. Helmet, body armor, food, water, night vision devices, a soldier's weapon, ammunition, hand grenades, first aid equipment and other gear can , and if a soldier helps carry, for example, mortar or machine gun ammunition that load can go up to 100 pounds. In a classic military Catch-22, the infantryman's ability to accomplish the mission is undermined by the weight of equipment necessary to accomplish the mission.
A new Army program could finally provide the answer. The Squad Mission Equipment Transport, or SMET, is designed to provide soldiers with a robotic tag-along vehicle that functions much like a pack mule. Under SMET, each infantry squad would be assigned its own pack mule, which could carry food, water, extra ammunition, casualty litters, and other mission-important gear like anti-tank weapons. This would lighten the load for individual soldiers who could travel greater distances and tackle more difficult terrain. In the past, the Army has explored but ultimately rejected other robotic mules, with wheels and legs alike. Perhaps the SMET will be different.
Team Polaris' entry for the SMET program is the MRZR-X, an optionally manned version of the MRZR ATV already in service with the U.S. military and the armed forces of 24 other countries. MRZR-X can be driven like a regular ATV, operated remotely, and even autonomously, dutifully following a squad of nine soldiers. In addition the vehicle for the SMET program must also carry 1,000 pounds of equipment, operate for up to six miles over a period of 72 hours without refueling/recharging, and recharge military electronics such as radios, tablets, and other devices.
The addition of a SMET vehicle to the infantry opens up a range of new possibilities for the infantry. Soldiers facing tanks can load up on extra anti-tank weapons, including AT4 rockets, anti-tank mines, and Javelin missiles. They can carry more logs, sandbags, and other equipment to protect themselves against artillery fire. And if a soldier is wounded, the SMET can theoretically carry the injured trooper to a field hospital all by itself, allowing the rest of the squad to continue on its mission. A SMET may even be equipped with machine guns or anti-tank rockets, providing a mobile fire support system for ground troops—kind of like a mini-tank.
Polaris believes that the success of the MRZR series of vehicles, plus the additional robotics systems added to compete in the SMET program, makes the MRZR-X the ideal vehicle to roll with U.S. forces into battle. According to Polaris MRZR-X provides "squad overmatch"—basically, the ability for U.S. forces to bring more firepower and stuff into battle than their opponents, and claims that their vehicle exceeds Army requirements in key areas. To top it off, the MRZR production line is already open and running.
The U.S. Army is , including the MRZR-X, with trials set to end October 14th. From there, the Army will select two semi-finalists and buy up to 20 of each vehicle for 2018 evaluations with two Infantry Brigade Combat Teams. The brigades will test the vehicles for a year, after which the Army will figure out where to go from there.