Army mule goes robotic

Israeli robot carries supplies, weaponry into battle, relieving troops of heavy burden; designed to be used by ground forces on missions.

REX robot following soldiers (photo credit: Courtesy)
REX robot following soldiers
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This summer, the US Army canceled a plan to build a heavy robotic MULE designed to haul gear for foot soldiers, but in Israel, a smaller mechanical beast of burden is still being put into service.
It’s called the REX. It carries 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of supplies and obeys voice commands immediately, which already puts it at an advantage over the average grunt. 
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The six-wheeled robot is a product of the Israel Aerospace Industry’s (IAI’s) business and technological innovation department and was presented at an annual weapons technology fair. The mechanical pack animal is designed to be used by ground forces on operational or logistical missions.
Uri Paz-Meidan, project manager of the REX at the military robots group of IAI, told The Media Line that he was confident this powered porter would be sought after by militaries.
“As a former infantry soldier I know it has a market. This is something that is becoming more and more required. Soldiers are becoming smarter and more specialized. Payloads for the average soldier in the Second World War were about 15 kilograms. Today it can be 40 or 50 kilograms which makes them very poor warriors. I know this system is very much needed,” he said.
The operator carries a small joystick that contains five command buttons. The REX can be programmed to follow as close as three meters or as much as 30 or 40 meters back. It can also be left and then summoned from hundreds of meters away with a press of a button.
“Let’s say a soldier scouts ahead silently. After he gets to where he wants to go he can simply call the REX and it comes,” Paz-Meidan said.
It is designed to follow a virtual path left by soldiers. Paz-Meidan declined to expand on the technology it used, saying it simply “duplicates the walking path of the soldiers by following virtual bread crumbs.”
The product prototype is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Experts at IAI estimate that the demand for such a product could amount to tens of thousands of orders, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in both the local and the international market, for a wide variety of military and civil applications.
“The Israeli army is interested and other armies are as well,” Paz-Meidan said.
The US army MULE being developed by Lockheed Martin was an acronym for Multi-Function Utility/Logistics and Equipment vehicle. It weighed in at 3.5 tons, which became it major flaw because it was deemed too heavy and big for transportation on helicopters.
In contrast, the REX weighs in at just 150 kilograms and was designed to be lifted by soldiers over extreme obstacles, like walls and stone terraces.  But the light weight comes at the expense of added noise. Instead of a silent engine powered by heavy batteries, it uses a small petrol engine. But it can drive for about 100 kilometers, or 72 hours, without refueling.
The REX was also purposely designed to be low and light; hip high for easy loading and the length of a human so it could carry a stretcher. Its developers envision that one of its civilian uses will be as a mobile “smart stretcher,” equipped with respirator and medical supplies.
 According to IAI, the development of the system is a result of their awareness of the urgent operational need for such a device. It integrates various already existing robotic capabilities, ensuring a low target price, a short development period and low-risk development.
The idea behind the REX was also pushing development of other ways to deal with the heavier payloads soldiers are required to carry. One of these is the exoskeleton machinery that soldier wear to boost their strength.

The Israeli military has tried to address this issue in the past. In the late 1990s it experimented with South American llamas to carry packs in its special forces operating in Lebanon. But this didn’t pan out since the llamas turned out to be weaker than expected – and, like real mules, ornery.
“The army bought the idea of the llamas so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t buy this,” a major in the IDF reserves and deputy battalion commander told The Media Line on condition he only be identified by the initial H.
“This would give us an operational answer to keep our troops from getting too fatigued and it also could lower their exposure to the enemy by sending it on ammunition runs for example,” H said.
He speculated that the REX could likely be easily modified to become an offensive robot or “exploding mule.” “We could turn this thing into a real fire force.”