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Army Eyes Autonomous Robotic Arm to Rapidly Resupply its Futuristic Long-Range Howitzer

May 01, 2021
by Matthew Cox
An Austin, Texas, startup company will show off a new type of autonomous robotic arm for Army officials looking for a way to take the burden off soldiers to rapidly resupply the service's futuristic Extended Range Cannon Artillery system with heavy 155mm artillery rounds.

Apptronik Inc.'s prototype robotic arm features a novel design that can lift more than current robotic arms while weighing far less, Jeff Cardenas, co-founder of Apptronik and vice president of strategy and corporate development, said.

"A standard industrial arm will typically weigh 10 times what it can lift," Cardenas said. "This arm weighs less than what it can lift, so currently the arm weighs about 200 pounds and it can lift 250 pounds.

"This is a new way of building industrial robotic arms for mobility," he added. "What we really focused on is arms that are designed to operate outside of the factory, outside of the warehouse in mobile and austere environments."

Apptronik's prototype emerged from an Army Applications Laboratory Artillery Resupply Cohort program that brought six tech companies together to figure out how to resupply self-propelled artillery cannons faster than ever before.

If all goes well, Apptronik's Robotic Arm Ammunition Resupply prototype could end up mounted in pairs on the M992A3 tracked ammunition resupply vehicle, which will be teamed with the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, or ERCA, system, currently being tested in a prototype M109A7 self-propelled howitzer.

"These [M992A3s] carry 90 rounds, and so right now the process of loading them is entirely manual," Cardenas said. "It's very tough on the soldiers' bodies, and it's slow."

The ERCA is being designed with an autoloader to speed up its rate of fire, but the service is also very interested in using an autonomous resupply system to increase the rate of loading, Cardenas said, describing how the ammo carrier can use two robotic arms mounted on the vehicle to resupply itself and then autonomously resupply the ERCA when its ammunition supply is depleted.

Apptronik officials are scheduled to demonstrate the new robotic arm prototypes to senior Army modernization officials at its facility in Texas.

Over the next 14 months, Apptronik is scheduled to produce and deliver a prototype to the Army for field testing, Cardenas said.

"What Apptronik developed wasn't at all what the Army was looking for when we launched the Artillery Resupply Cohort," Chris Sankovich, a project manager at Army Applications Laboratory, said. "It shows what's possible when we give the nation's best and brightest the space to innovate and use their expertise to tell us the best way to solve a problem."

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Photo caption: Extended Range Cannon Artillery System, or ERCA, being tested in an M109A7 self-propelled howitzer at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona. (U.S. Army)


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