High-tech gadgets take to air, sea at Camp Pendleton

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Brandon Reimschiissel, flight operations engineer for the “V-Bat” a vertical take off and landing unmanned aerial vehicle, prepped the aircraft for a demonstration at Camp Pendleton on Wednesday April 26. (John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

An exercise taking place this month at Camp Pendleton is designed to help answer a simple question: how to mount an aggressive beach invasion while risking fewer U.S. Marine lives in a time when technology almost ensures that the enemy will see everything that’s coming at them.

On display in the air, sea and land were more than 100 high-tech tools the U.S. Marine Corps. is considering for future warfare use. Those tools included flying drones of all shapes and sizes, unmanned ground vehicles that can start a beach assault with a machine gun controlled from half a kilometer away, and submersible robots that scour the shallow waters near shore searching for mines and other obstacles.

The Advanced Naval Technology Exercise — which has been under way for two weeks and concludes Thursday — has turned Pendleton’s Red Beach just west of Las Pulgas Road into “Combat Town” with thousands of invited guests coming through.

“This is a relatively new construct where we use the Navy’s organic labs and warfare centers to bring together emerging technologies and innovation to solve a very specific fleet force fighting problem,” said Carly Jackson, director of prototyping SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific and the main organizer of the event.

“It’s focused on first wave and mostly focusing on unmanned systems with a big emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance,” she said.

“What we’re doing here is marrying up technologists from industry, academia and government labs with the guys who actually develop the operation concepts for the Marine Corps,” added Marine Lt. Col. Jim Foley.

The event was reminiscent of a huge trade show with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military contracts potentially at stake.

Each afternoon some of the tools were put into practice during a faux amphibious landing in which the waters were scanned by air and sea by drones and robots that looked for mines and gauged the currents and wave heights. The unmanned ground vehicles were then brought in to set up on the beach and perhaps begin the fight. Information was being relayed from above by flying drones of all sizes and shapes.

“Some of the vehicles that in the past were piloted by actual people are being remotely operated so the first things that hit the beach won’t be manned, they will be robots that can breach or go through obstacles,” Foley said.

A few examples of the 100-plus gadgets on exhibit:

  • The Pegasus Hybrid — a quad-copter small flying drone that becomes a ground vehicle once it’s landed. “You can do missions with it you can’t do with just a ground vehicle or an air vehicle,” said Robotics Research LLC Vice President Carl Murphy. “You could land it on a building and then drive it around to look at things without causing a bunch of sound and ruckus.”
  • The Multi-Utility Tactical Transport family of vehicles — (MUTT) which are various sized supply carrying vehicles that can be put on the beach in advance of troops. They can also be turned into a weapon by mounting a M2 .50-caliber machine. “It would take five guys to take the .50-cal downrange. One guy can do it here and he can remotely control it. So now you look like a big force and the enemy won’t know.” said Dan Rodgers of General Dynmacis Land Systems.
  • The RAZOR Biorobotic Mine-Hunting UUV — “This thing swims sort of like a sea turtle with four flapping fins that can do low-speed maneuvers” which is ideal for doing widespread mapping of a minefield, said David Beal, engineer with the naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport.

“We believe amphibious operations will be a vital part of our tool box in the future,” Lt. Col. Foley said. “What has changed is our potential adversaries abilities. they can have access to overhead and satellite imagery so we assume we’re always going to be looked at.”

He said even groups like ISIS can use 3-D printers to make drones and explosive devices and are using those today. “So even at the lower levels we are seeing threats we never saw before. We need to use technology to aid our manned units to maintain our edge.” Foley said. “We don’t ever want to be in a fair fight.”

Tracy Conroy, experimentation director for SPAWAR Systems Center PACIFIC, said events like this used to be commonplace but since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where amphibious landings played little role, the Marine Corps had gotten away from such things.

“The purpose of this exercise is to see what has happened in the past 14 years, what new technology is there, to help improve and enable the Marines to get ashore quickly, safely, quietly and get them back to the ships,” he said.

He said in the future drones and man will work together as one unit, one team.

“It’s given you eyes on the water, eyes under the water, eyes on the beach and eyes in the sky,” Conroy said. “We take less of a risk of losing a Marine or a Seal with that (teamwork).”