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Soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood are assessing high-tech robots for combat scenarios

A TRX prototype machine operated remotely moves a car out of the way at a Fort Leonard Wood range. The armed forces are considering working with the new technology to improve efficiency and get soldiers out of harm's way.
Jonathan Ahl
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A TRX prototype machine operated remotely moves a car out of the way at a Fort Leonard Wood range. The armed forces are considering working with the new technology to improve efficiency and get soldiers out of harm's way.

The armed forces are always looking for ways to use technology to help accomplish their missions and increase soldier safety.

This week, Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood has been hosting reviews of two new remote-controlled options for troops working in hostile environments.

They include a vehicle that can clear mines, move debris and create obstacles, as well as a robot that looks and acts a lot like a dog.

In combat operations, removing obstacles for safe passage of troops is an essential function. But that usually includes putting soldiers in harm’s way. The TRX, a new piece of equipment the armed forces are considering using, could change that.

The TRX looks kind of like a tank on the bottom, but the top is a flat platform that can hold a variety of equipment, including a plow blade that can ram a car and knock it off a road, and an arm that can pick up a car or other debris and move it out of the way.

But there are no soldiers on that vehicle while it's in action. It can be operated from a safe point a couple of hundred yards away.

The combat engineers at Fort Leonard Wood who are assessing the prototype this week said it could be a huge benefit when they are called in to move debris.

“It takes a lot of effort from soldiers. They can wear them out,” said Lt. Bradley Turner, one of the soldiers giving the new technology a run-through. “It takes time. If you have a robot like this, it can really improve the efficiency of that and save soldiers wear and tear. You're saving lives, and their efficiency goes up for other jobs so we can put them in.”

While the TRX is a piece of heavy machinery, the other technology under review this week is smaller and cuter.

“SPOT” is a robot that looks a lot like a dog, complete with four legs and head that can move around to get better sight angles for its onboard cameras.

The Army is testing out how it can be operated to look for bombs, enemies in hiding or anything else that can be a threat.

It’s so nimble it can trot up stairs.

"SPOT" a robot that can check for bombs, hidden enemies and other threats goes through the paces in a simulated urban environment at Fort Leonard Wood.
Jonathan Ahl
/
St. Louis Public Radio
"SPOT," a robot that can check for bombs, hidden enemies and other threats goes through the paces in a simulated urban environment at Fort Leonard Wood.

The assessment team can already see better opportunities than with other robots the Army has used.

“In northern Afghanistan, where I operated, half of the time we left our robot in the truck because you couldn't take it down the steep rocky trails and things like that, where this does a better job of doing that,” said Maj. Ryan Plemmons.

Soldiers working with SPOT and the TRX this week are giving feedback to the designers and engineers with the private companies. The idea is for them to make modifications as they develop equipment for the military.

“In getting ideas from them, like maybe they say ‘if you change this or that it would make it easier on soldiers’ or ‘if you change this or that on the robot, maybe we can put a change the payload’ ... these are the kind of comments we can use to improve the design,” said Steve Rash with General Dynamics, one of the contractors involved with the development of TRX.

The Army stresses this is the early stages of working with the new technology - no contracts are in place and it is likely years before a refined design comes to fruition.

But soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood will continue to offer feedback on prototypes and designs as part of their mission.

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.