May 19, 2010

Robots to rove Marine firing ranges

Corps to test autonomous targets

The Marine Corps will begin testing a humanoid target in July that can zip through ranges and mimic the behavior of insurgents, foreign fighters and civilians in a combat zone.
Dubbed “Rover” by its maker — Australian-based Marathon Robotics — the autonomous targets can run in packs, providing Marines with real-world scenarios that require them to track and engage multiple “fighters.”
It could be some time before Marines have them in their sights, but foreign militaries have already deemed the device useful.
The Rover’s greatest strength as a training tool comes from its random, but “intelligent” behavior, according to its makers. Using sensors, it can change direction to avoid objects and scatters for cover when fired at.
“This provides mobile targets that move in realistic ways,” said Alex Brooks, CEO of Marathon Robotics. “It forces people to concentrate in ways that you don’t have to with static targets.”
Rover stands at nearly 6 feet and consists of a torso mannequin perched atop a carriage produced by Segway — maker of the two-wheeled vehicle preferred by mall cops everywhere. Rovers can scurry at almost 8 mph and operate in heavy rain and temperatures between 32-120 degrees.
With its critical components armored to withstand repeated beatings from 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammo, it weighs in at a hefty 330 pounds. The replaceable torso target can take hundreds of shots before being changed.
Rover’s on-board sensors can also distinguish between kill shots to the spine or brain and a nonlethal hit. This forces troops to develop quick, but accurate, fire.
The robots, designated “Robotic Moving Target Systems” by the Marine Corps, were first authorized for testing in late 2009 by the Defense Department’s Foreign Comparative Test Program. Marine Corps Systems Command will begin testing eight “Rovers” this summer, using $2.5 million already allotted for the program. A training range has yet to be designated.
About seven years ago, Brooks said, the Australian Defense Force approached his company looking for a better target. Marathon Robotics built one on a Segway platform because it was widely used and had already proven itself durable.
In 2008, the ADF procured a number of the robots for use at a sniper training range in Western Australia and has used them ever since.
Rover, unlike target systems that use tracks or cables to move, can be added to existing urban terrain trainers on Marine installations without any modifications to the facility. Because the robots can roll just about anywhere, they can simply be turned on and let loose.
“If demonstrated effective, I believe every Marine could be afforded the opportunity to engage this system,” wrote Capt. Geraldine Carey, a Marine Corps Systems Command spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

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