Written By: Helen Cutts
Years ago, when my timing belt broke on the highway, the damage to my engine was extensive. Even though I had replaced the belt not long before that, it didn’t last. That stroke of bad luck, however, didn’t change my view about the value of good oversight and maintenance. It’s the same for the Canadian Armed Forces. With their heavy investment in military equipment, they have to make sound purchases, maintain their equipment and have the right skill sets to repair it. Not many people know that there’s a museum in Kingston that showcases the branch of the Armed Forces that’s in charge of the procurement, maintenance and repair of military equipment.
The Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RCEME) Museum was officially opened as an annex to the Communications and Electronics Museum in 2016. The first time I walked in the main doors at 95 Craftsman Boulevard, I felt as if I were walking into a single museum. At the back of the huge building, I found exhibits telling the story of the Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. I’ve returned a few times and I’ve noted that the military vehicles in this space are always a hit with children.
The work of the RCEME is not usually front-of-mind, but once you think about it, it’s clear that the survival of a soldier and the outcome of a battle depend on the reliability of the weapon systems and the military equipment. If a vehicle breaks down, soldier technicians work with the vehicle on site, often in the line of enemy fire, or they tow it to a workshop if it is badly damaged. When I was visiting the museum, a photo in the Afghanistan display caught my eye. It showed RCEME personnel recovering a damaged tank in the middle of a war zone where there was a high risk that an improvised explosive device (IED) could be triggered at any time.
It has always been the case that RCEME technicians have worked alongside fighting troops and have undertaken great risks to do their jobs effectively. During the two world wars, they demonstrated their skills on the battlefield, repairing equipment under enemy fire. Although the RCEME was not formally created until 1944, the work of technicians was clearly in evidence during World War I when mobile units were set up behind enemy lines to repair a wide range of items, including rifles, machine guns, horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles and helmets.
The RCEME cap badge today closely resembles the badge that was designed in 1949 to represent the two fields of engineering. The horse and chain symbolize power under control for the mechanical engineers, while the lightning bolt is a symbol for the electrical engineers.
Since its creation, the Corps has served in every theatre of operations where the Canadian Armed Forces have been deployed. It has continually evolved as the technology and equipment of war have evolved. To get some further insight into this Corps, I did some internet surfing and discovered the EME Journal, published from 2003 to 2016 and the journal that replaced it in 2016, the Land Equipment Management System (LEMS) Journal.
The March 2021 issue of the LEMS Journal contains an interesting article by Cpl R. E. Granados about ground-based telerobotics, the field of work concerned with the control of semi-autonomous robots from a distance. While recognizing that “human soldiers will remain the supreme asset on the battlefield”, Granados points to areas where telerobotics will be critical to the Canadian Armed Forces. For example, in the future, tactical drones could be very effective in military operations that are conducted in urban terrain because they will give a section commander a better understanding of the surroundings. Making effective use of telerobotics in infantry sections will depend on on-going improvements to the robots, such as improved user interface and advances in semiconductor technology that will allow better cameras to be placed on smaller robots.
Granados foresees a time when artificial intelligence is sufficiently well advanced that semi-autonomous robots could be trained to find IEDs more reliably than humans by recognizing disturbances in the ground. Thinking of the implications for the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Granados points out that when repairs are needed, improvised fixes will become more challenging. Technicians in the Corps are already seeing that as digital technologies replace analog technologies, they must rely more on part-swapping rather than repair. In all, Granados writes a compelling piece on the need for Canada to get ahead of the curve with telerobotics and to examine how semi-autonomous robots can be integrated into the battlespace.