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Robotics, autonomy and artificial intelligence will change the character of warfare in coming decades. The US Army is ramping up investments in robotic systems that could keep troops out of harm’s way and serve as force multipliers on future battlefields.

The US military robotics portfolio has grown significantly in the past six years, funding rose from $17 million in fiscal year 2015 to $379 million requested for 2021, according to Maj. Jeremy Howell, deputy robotics branch chief, G-8.

The service’s portfolio includes everything from small unmanned aerial systems and ground robots to logistics trucks and combat vehicles to soldier-borne exoskeletons.

The service’s priorities include improving situational awareness; lightening soldiers’ physical and cognitive workloads; improving sustainment; facilitating movement and maneuver; and protecting the force.

20 robotics programs are currently underway, as the service isn’t just interested in buying new platforms. It also wants modular mission payloads. “These packages may include lethality packages, communications and sensor suites as well as obscuration and anti-jamming capabilities,” Howell said.

To communicate with its unmanned systems, the Army is looking for a universal robotics controller, also known as URC. Officials are currently conducting a study to identify what the solution should be.

“We will be putting small UAS as well as ground robotic platforms — thousands of them — onto the battlefield,” Howell said. “The question that we have is, how do we communicate with this vast number of robots so that they are able to be a force multiplier for the commander instead of a distraction? How do they interact with each other? Is it a standard piece of hardware that controls all robots? Or are we looking for a software that enables each of the different systems to … interact on a common medium of communications?”

According to nationaldefensemagazine.org, the URC concept could be similar to the internet of things. The challenge of the industries is to “take that technology and put it in the hands of soldiers so that they can apply it to ensuring robots out there on the battlefield are there to support them”.