Before long, soldiers in tactical vehicles in the battle-space could get help from autonomous systems.
These systems will provide increased situational awareness and decrease the probability of accidents using safety features such as obstacle detection, collision avoidance, lane departure, tip-over warnings and vision enhancements for low-visibility conditions.
In the future, some of those vehicles could even be completely driverless.
The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center’s 30-Year Ground Vehicle Strategy “introduces scalable autonomy that will serve as a force multiplier and augment the capabilities of Soldiers,” said Dr. Paul D. Rogers, director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, known as TARDEC.
This new technology is capable of making almost every military vehicle an optionally-manned vehicle. As far as removing the assistant driver, “I believe we can do that now with the autonomous capability that we’ll be integrating into our vehicle systems,” according to Rogers. “It’s a mature capability that is ready to go into a program of record and could be fielded in the 2025 timeframe.”
Removing both drivers is about two years behind that in research and development, he said.
“That will mature from the technology and integration perspective by 2019 and be ready to transfer into a program of record followed by fielding within a decade after that,” Rogers explained.
The Army’s most recent demonstration of driverless vehicles took place in May 2014 at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where a convoy of seven different tactical vehicles were driven completely unmanned at speeds exceeding 40 mph.
That site, he said, was selected for its secure and structured environment, where the safety of pedestrians would not be an issue.
In August this year, Rogers said another demonstration will take place at the Savannah site, with Marines and soldiers participating.
The nuts and bolts of autonomous vehicles reside in the two different types of kits that were developed to be used in every type tactical vehicle in the Army’s fleet, he said.
The first kit is the “autonomy kit,” which includes sensors that are the eyes of the platform that observes what’s around the vehicle.
Some of its technology includes the LIDAR system, or Light Detection and Ranging, which looks for curves in the road and changes from pavement and gravel to grass and uses those to inform the platform where the road surface is and its expected travel path.
The Google Self-Driving Car is also using LIDAR technology. While the Army is not partnering with Google, “we’re on similar paths,” Rogers said, adding that the Army was looking at autonomous vehicles as far back as 2005.
The second kit is the “by-wire drive,” which operates the basic driving functions of the platform such as acceleration, braking and steering.
Both kits are designed in a modular fashion to allow for flexibility in the future as technology matures so that new capabilities can be added, Rogers pointed out.
The user-testing of these systems, while especially important, is just part of the picture.
“These are disruptive ideas and capabilities,” said Rogers, meaning there’s a lot more to it than ensuring the autonomous vehicles are safe and efficient. They are disruptive in the sense that the technology could actually change the way soldiers fight and train.
This is where the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command is helping out by re-examining its doctrine, tactics and training so that when these technologies are fielded, they can work in the context of the broader national strategic objectives as well as at the tactical levels, he said.
Also partnering with TARDEC are the Army Capabilities Integration Center, TRADOC Centers of Excellence, Industry, the academic community and, of course Detroit, where the automotive industry is centered.
TARDEC, which is in Warren, Mich., is fortunate to be located in close proximity to the automotive industry, Rogers said.
“We’re about harvesting their technologies and integrating them into a package that offers operational relevance to the warfighter, capabilities they don’t have today,” he said.
It’s also about saving money.
For example, Detroit can develop radar systems for collision avoidance and develop a variety of sensors at relatively low costs, because they turn out thousands of vehicles a year. For the Army to develop those systems just for its vehicles would be cost prohibitive and unnecessary, he said. The Army will only need to fund its military-specific components.
The big difference between the automotive community and the Army is that Detroit “measures vehicle life expectancy in years, whereas military vehicle life expectancies are measured in decades,” he said.
The cost savings for the Army comes in kit-size, not completely new vehicle design, he explained.
While autonomous vehicle convoys made up of troop-carrying vehicles like the Humvee and cargo-carrying vehicles like the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck are a huge leap forward, TARDEC also has its sights set on vehicles that are weapons platforms, such as the Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Stryker.
TARDEC will be experimenting with manned and unmanned teaming so that maybe four manned Abrams tanks could team up with four that are unmanned. The unmanned tanks could perform screening operations to protect the flanks or could operate at point in front. It’s still a future concept that’s probably 20 years away, Rogers said.
Another exciting possibility is TARDEC’s exploration of manned or unmanned aircraft teaming up with unmanned ground vehicles. That development is a lot closer in time, he said, with demonstrations coming up at the end of this year and on into next.
Rogers compared these manned-unmanned teaming systems to outdoorsmen who rely on their mules or hunting dogs for survival.
A third endeavor TARDEC is exploring is the use of unmanned helicopters to deliver unmanned ground vehicles into a dangerous environment that may not only contain extremists, but also an extremely unfriendly environment containing chemical, biological or radiological hazards.
“It’s no place you’d want to send a Soldier,” he said, adding that once those unmanned vehicles are dropped off, their sensors could immediately stream data about the environment via satellite or command link.
Applied robotics for installations, base operations
While autonomous tactical vehicle studies, development and fielding will take place incrementally over a 30-year time period, TARDEC has some more immediate plans to roll out autonomous vehicles on installations and other places in the U.S.
This is where ARIBO, or Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operation, comes in.
TARDEC is now collaborating with industry and other government agencies to leverage installations as living laboratories, Rogers said, explaining that living laboratories means autonomous vehicles being used to perform real-world functions and users of those systems – soldiers – providing feedback to TARDEC on their effectiveness.
There are a number of ARIBO plans in the works, including one at Fort Bragg, N.C., where autonomous vehicle systems will soon move wounded warriors from their transition barracks to their medical appointments, “so they’re there on time with dependable transportation,” he said.
The cost savings for enterprises such as this would be enormous, Rogers said, with the systems quickly paying for themselves.
In the case of Fort Bragg, the vehicles would also be energy-efficient, with the vehicles charged from solar panels at special parking pavilions.
Designs for similar systems by TARDEC are also underway at the U.S. Military Academy and at Stanford University. For those two campuses, autonomous vehicles would carry people from distant parking areas to ease congestion.
Similar designs are planned for other Army installations and even private sites like theme parks.
For installations, autonomous vehicles could transport food to Soldiers training in the field or ammunition for troops on the rifle range. The potential for efficiencies is enormous, he said.
Naturally, the Army would share its autonomous vehicle designs with the other services. Besides that, the technologies could spawn new investments in the commercial sector, thereby strengthening the U.S. economy, Rogers said.
“We’re close to a second revolution,” he said. The first was in the manufacturing sector where robots on assembly lines made the process more safe and efficient. The second robotics revolution will be in the transportation community.