The Army is in the midst of a major push to safeguard the Future Combat System and I just got back from a day-long tour at Aberdeen Proving Ground of FCS-related components and systems, including the delightful little SUG-V, built by I-Robot.
The media push by the Army is extensive: combine today's tour with an identical tour for other reporters on Friday with a two-day tour beginning Monday of FCS-related facilities near in Warren, Mich. and Lima, Ohio. Given this is the Army's biggest modernization push since it built the so-called Big Five -- the Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Apache attack helicopter, the Blackhawk transport helo and the Patriot missile system --I plan to file several stories about FCS over the next week.
Let's start with the SUG-V. A version of these is already being used by troops in Iraq and is reportedly pretty popular for its combination of two cameras (one on a maneuverable head and a backup camera on the body), ease of use and mobility. The little robots (which often get cute or affectionate names from troops handling them) were extremely easy to use. I popped on a pair of safety glasses with a small monocular video screen attached, picked up the robot's controller (which looks just like a game controller) and was away on the official testing course the Army is running three of the robots on for 126 hours of testing to ensure they are reliable and perform well. The bot has three speeds and can zip sideways, backwards and forwards with relative ease. Mine climbed a steep ramp and bobbled over some pretty rugged bumps. The little camera's picture is quite sharp and the view can also be watched on a separate stand-alone screen. Given that I don't play computer games and have almost never controlled a robotic plane or car, the simplicity and effectiveness which marked its operation really impressed me.
According to Army testing officials -- careful to note that they have not officially completed the test or examined the testing data -- said the little bots are performing well and have 48 hours remaining in their test.
Of course, when the media shows up something has to go wrong, doesn't it? While we watched one of bots got stuck in a deep rutted path. After several minutes of trying to maneuver out of trouble, one of the Army testers put it into sleep mode (head tucked in, little treaded arms at the side) and I picked it up the by the handle and moved it to less daunting terrain. Several of the testers, who put these through their paces for six hours every day, said this was the first time any of the bots had gotten stuck. Wouldn't ya know it...