A GI's next target? That autonomous moving robot at 50 yards

U.S. troops are used to fighting alongside robots in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they’re being pitted against them in live fire training as the U.S. military moves to replace pop-up targets with mobile, autonomous machines.

The robotic targets, which can be programmed to move almost anywhere in a training area and react to the actions of troops, are poised to revolutionize military marksmanship, which generally has involved troops shooting at plastic man-shaped targets that lurch forward on springs or roll sideways on tracks.

Lt. Col. Michael Richardson, a squadron commander at the Training and Doctrine Command’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, said Robotic Human Type Targets are being assessed on ranges at Fort A.P. Hill, Va.

“The Army … does a great job of improving soldiers’ marksmanship, but we realized … we could improve training by really being able to let soldiers engage moving targets before they see them in combat,” he said.

Alex Brooks, chief executive of Marathon Targets, which makes robotic targets, said the idea came from a member of the Australian Special Air Service who oversees a military training range in Western Australia.

“He was unhappy with the state of the art and the level of [live fire] training he could give guys,” he said. “While simulators and virtual reality training have advanced in leaps and bounds, what people are doing with live fire hadn’t advanced in 50 years.”

The soldier, who, like many special operators, prefers to remain anonymous, approached staff at the University of Sydney’s robotics laboratory, Brooks said.

Early versions of the robotic targets were mounted on electric Segway scooters. But the latest version has four wheels to navigate bumpy ground and steep hills and is designed to tilt at the hip and fall over when shot. It is autonomous but can be programmed for various scenarios.

“You can set up a coordinated scenario and have the robots move anywhere across the training range,” Brooks said. “You can set up a realistic scenario like guys will face in combat.”

For example, the robots can be placed at a military operations in urban terrain site — a sort of fake town on a training range — and programmed to defend it, he said.

“They will send out patrols, and if they don’t come back, the other robots will react accordingly,” he said.

The robots can react to fallen comrades — coming to their aid or scattering — but their real advantage is that they provide a moving, three-dimensional target, Brooks said.

“The reality today is that the first time soldiers fire live ammo on a moving target like this is during their first firefight,” he said. “You want guys who have practiced this before they are doing it for real.”

Some people have asked whether the robots could be armed with training weapons such as paintball guns or lasers, but that hasn’t been tried, he said.

Marathon Targets has sold robots to the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and the Australian Defense Force. A training package with eight robotic targets recently sold for $1.8 million, Brooks said.

They can be mixed with conventional targets on training ranges, moved anywhere and set up in less than an hour.

One member of the warfare group who has shot at robotic targets, Command Sgt. Maj. Cory Ackley, said they do a good job of replicating the situations he has faced in real-world firefights, since they can replicate typical enemy movements.

They can be used to set up scenarios with civilians and hostile forces intermingled on the battlefield.

“The robots allow us to really look at leadership at the small-unit level and how they make reactive and adaptive decisions on a live-fire range,” he said. “It has a powerful and positive influence on small-unit leaders.”

When and where the targets are fielded will depend on training priorities set by the Army chief of staff, Richardson said.

Arizona State University engineering professor Braden Allenby said it would make sense for the military to use cheaper pop-up targets to teach basic skills and bring in the robotic systems for more advanced training.

They are not programmed to learn and adapt to tactics used against them -– yet. But Allenby said humans might be used in the future to “teach” robots by example.

“In other words, if you are a quasi-autonomous or learning robot, your performance is being improved by having humans behaving autonomously around you to help train you,” he said.


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