WASHINGTON,– The Defense Department and unmanned systems developers must do a better job fielding unmanned capabilities to servicemembers on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior military officer said here yesterday.

Army Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, commanding general of the Army’s 3rd Corps and Fort Hood, Texas, voiced this concern during a speech to defense contractors at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems North America 2009 Convention. More than 5,000 people from 30 countries are taking part in the conference that began Aug. 9 and ends tomorrow at the Washington Convention Center.

The convention is the world’s largest exhibition of robots and unmanned systems capabilities. More than 320 unmanned aerial, maritime and ground systems were on display, offering the industry’s latest products and innovations.

“Every day, we try to make the lives of our soldiers and their families better,” Lynch said. “And advocating unmanned systems technology is all part of it.”

Lynch has been an advocate for unmanned ground systems since 1985, just after he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering focused on robotics, he said.

His passion continued as a young captain at Fort Knox, Ky., where he was the robotics project officer in the directorate of combat development at the Army’s Armor Center, he added.

“I have pursued with a passion unmanned ground vehicle technology every day since then,” the general said, “because in my mind, it is about saving lives.”

In three accumulative years of deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lynch said he’s lost 153 soldiers to combat. He also noted that there are more than 1,500 families of fallen servicemembers living on and around Fort Hood.

Many of them didn’t have to die, he said. “Eighty percent of those youngsters didn’t have to die, because they died in a way where they could’ve been replaced by an unmanned ground vehicle if [the military] had the capabilities.”

In contrast, Lynch said, 41 more of his soldiers would have died if they had not been in one of the Army’s mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. The MRAPs “are a godsend,” he said, adding that soldiers’ lives are still at risk while unmanned capabilities are tucked away in industry warehouses.

It’s not enough to know that capabilities are available and vendors and companies have the latest in unmanned capabilities stocked away on their shelves, Lynch said. Troops are engaged daily by roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. New technologies are no good unless they’re fielded and in the hands of the troops, he added.

“I am so tired of going to demonstrations because of technology,” Lynch said, noting the “amazing” advances he’s seen over the years with unmanned ground vehicles and other systems. “I did them in 1985, and I’ve seen amazing capabilities. We’ve got to get past the demonstration and into the fielding.”

Fielding can happen, he said, if the unmanned industry would stay focused on it. “We as a nation said we’ve got to accelerate [MRAP] fielding, and by God, they showed up,” he said. “We’ve put our soldiers in the back of them, and if those soldiers had been in a tank, a Bradley [Fighting Vehicle] or an up-armored humvee, they all would’ve died or been seriously injured. I tell you that to let you know we can [save lives] if we, indeed, focus.”

Lynch identified four areas for vendors and Defense officials to focus on when developing and purchasing unmanned capabilities. He categorized the areas as route clearance, persistence, convoy following and robotic wingman technology.

He described the need for route clearance capabilities by explaining troops’ missions to drive up and down roads and highways, specifically searching for roadside bombs. He called for systems that can be remotely operated to take the place of actual soldiers risking their lives for such a cause.

“We’ve got to get those kids out of those route clearance vehicles,” he said. “Let’s get those kids out of the vehicles so they don’t continue to die.”

Persistence involves replacing the duties soldiers have to hide in over-watch positions for days at a time, scouting the landscape for insurgents planting bombs. He shared a true story from 2007 in Baghdad where seven of his soldiers were killed and three were captured by insurgents while conducting such a mission.

Again, he called for a remote-controlled ground system to take the soldiers’ place in similar situations. He added that while some may feel unmanned aerial systems fill this need, UASs are not always readily available because of weather and other issues.

Convoy following, he said, deals with minimizing the amount of troops participating in convoys. He said he’s seen capabilities at demonstrations and exhibits where the lead vehicle in a convoy was manned by a soldier and most of the other vehicles were unmanned.

“We’re losing so many soldiers in convoys that it’s a professional embarrassment,” Lynch said. “Why in the world does every cab in the convoy have to be occupied by a human being? I’ve seen that technology demonstrated many times over the last 25 years, yet we’re not fielding that technology.”

Another pressing need, Lynch said, is for a robotic wingman in vehicles that mirror the movements of others. He explained that a platoon of tanks consists of four tanks with four soldiers in each. The robotic wingman can mirror the manned vehicles movements and cut risk to soldiers in half, he said.

To help ensure the unmanned industry’s focus on saving lives, Fort Hood is hosting an unmanned ground system rodeo Sept. 1 – 3. More than 40 vendors are expected to display their systems and get feedback from combat-hardened and experienced soldiers there, Lynch said.

“If you can help us with those four applications, you’re going to be making a difference,” he said. “And what you’re going to be doing is saving a soldier’s life.”

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