Lockheed Martin’s (LM) Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) has passed a final round of tests at Fort Riley, Kansas, before scheduled deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. The system, which turns a six-wheeled amphibious ATV into a robotic packhorse and charging station, has been subjected to a variety of simulated warzone environments in both remote controlled and fully autonomous modes.

The SMSS, which was first reported on by Gizmag in 2006, literally takes the load off the soldier's back, reducing fatigue currently experienced by those on the front line. The average warfighter these days is expected to carry around 100lbs (45 kg) on their back – this is like piggy-backing a teenager around the battlefield. Not only are fieldpacks heavy but they can also be cumbersome, reducing a soldier's ability to respond in combat. The SMSS can carry a squad's food supplies, water, batteries, heavy weapons, ammunition, survival gear and can even accommodate casualties. Besides transporting up to 600lbs (272 kg) of gear, the SMSS also provides two to four kilowatts of power, and is capable of charging 146 batteries within ten hours.

“Soldiers deserve the best possible situational awareness, communications, optics, sensors and protection, and the SMSS will help power it all and relieve their burden,” Jim Gribschaw, director of Combat Maneuver Systems at LM Missiles and Fire Control said. “SMSS represents much more than a portable charging station; it can carry more than half a ton of the warfighters’ supplies and can autonomously follow the squad, allowing the soldier to put down the remote control and focus on the fight.”

LM's SMSS technology frees the soldier of this payload but unlike the MULE, which LM does not see as being a direct competitor, the robotic control system employed here gives the option of a number of control modes including remote via the control unit, voice activated control and fully autonomous. In autonomous mode, the SMSS uses a 3D scanning LIDAR to navigate its immediate surroundings while following either the optical form of a certain soldier or predetermined way-points (which can be set by the operator or can be automatically dropped by the SMSS during allowing a trace back mode).

This technology is said to help decrease the amount of time a warfighter has to spend in controlling robotic systems, by providing vehicles with a greater perception of their surroundings on the battlefield.

Two classes of SMSS vehicles have been developed by Lockheed Martin, and the latest round of testing involved the Block 0 vehicle, as the Block 1 versions were being prepared for deployment in Afghanistan next year. Both vehicles are built around the six-wheeled amphibious ATV Land Tamer platform produced by PFM Manufacturing. The tests involved systems integration testing, controlled obstacle negotiation and mock missions.