By Ann Roosevelt

Boeing [BA] and SAIC [SAI], the Lead Systems Integrator for the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, announced the service has accelerated test schedules for robotic prototypes developed by iRobot [IRBT] and Honeywell [HON].

The Army took action based on current technology readiness levels and positive feedback from soldiers who are using early versions of the systems in Iraq and Afghanistan. The original schedules called for formal system testing to begin in 2011.

"The acceleration of the SUGV and Class I (Block 0) UAV prototypes and testing underscores the Army’s commitment to enhancing soldier survivability and mission effectiveness by getting the capabilities into their hands as soon as possible," Dennis Muilenburg, vice president-general manager, Boeing Combat Systems, and FCS program manager, said. "The decision to accelerate, driven in part by feedback from soldiers in theater, also confirms that we are on the right track to deliver a crucial capability that is needed and desired by our soldiers currently serving in combat operations."

Joseph Dyer, president of iRobot’s Government & Industrial Robots division, said in a statement: "We see this acceleration as clear evidence of the U.S. Army’s recognition of the critical role robots play in arming soldiers with the best intelligence and combat options to provide clear advantage on the battlefield."

A Honeywell spokesman told Defense Daily that the company "absolutely and fully supports the acceleration and we’ll have the vehicles and people to support the exercise."

The two robotic systems to be evaluated will have a greater capability than those systems now used by soldiers. This effort is intended to provide early capability to soldiers.

This month, 25 FCS Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) units developed jointly with iRobot and 11 Class I (Block 0) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) developed jointly with Honeywell will be delivered in increments to Army Evaluation Task Force (AETF) soldiers at Ft. Bliss, Texas. Deliveries will occur between January and June 2008 with testing expected to conclude in September.

"We continue to receive a tremendous amount of positive feedback from soldiers in theater that iRobot PackBot is an essential tool for ensuring mission readiness and improving situational awareness to keep soldiers out of harm’s way," Dyer said.

AETF soldiers will train with the equipment before conducting user testing in the summer. Then, based on soldier feedback, a recommendation will be made to senior Army leadership whether to field the platforms or continue with system development under the core FCS program.

The 30-pound iRobot SUGV is a small, lightweight, soldier-portable unmanned ground vehicle that is capable of conducting military operations in high-risk environments, including urban terrain, tunnels, sewers and caves, without exposing soldiers directly to potential hazards.

The AETF will begin evaluation and testing of the robots in May 2008. The SUGV Systems Development and Demonstration program will continue to mature the SUGV with its full network capability.

The initial soldier evaluations will determine the capabilities and limitations of the SUGV platform. These evaluations will support the Army’s production decision, which is expected in September 2008. FCS will procure a select number of these early SUGV units and then transition to the full network-capable SUGV as scheduled by the FCS program.

The Honeywell Class I (Block 0) UAV, a platoon-level asset and the smaller of the two FCS unmanned vehicle classes, will provide dismounted soldiers with unprecedented reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition capabilities on the battlefield. The Class I UAV can operate in complex urban and jungle terrains with vertical takeoff, hover and landing capability, and can be operated autonomously or controlled by dismounted soldiers.

The Army’s current plans call for 81 SUGVs and 90 Class 1 UAVs to be fielded with each FCS Brigade Combat Team starting in 2015.

The robotic acceleration activities are separate from the parallel Spin Out 1 efforts, which are the first of three planned examinations of FCS capabilities for the current force. Spin Out 1 consists of equipment and technologies that will provide enhanced situational awareness and communication capabilities through technology insertions to Abrams battle tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees.