Self-driving vehicles may not be commonplace on city streets yet, but they are headed to the Precision Impact Range Area on Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Autonomous Solutions Inc. conducted a site survey to gather information needed to provide their autonomous services to the PIRA, April 16-17. The technology would allow self-driving vehicles to conduct convoy operations during target acquisition testing, said John Streets, 412th Range Squadron.
“They’re here today to do site characterization; they are going to take their kit and they are going to outfit to a number of our targets, they’re going to plot the paths on the different roadways, different tracks, that we use on the PIRA along with their mesh radio network, they want to figure out wheat locations to install those for the actual trial
The collaboration between Team Edwards and ASI was born from the Air Force’s AFWERX and Small Business Innovation Research program. AFWERX serves as a catalyst for the Air Force to engage industry, academic and non-traditional contributors to foster opportunities and a culture of innovation. The SBIR program allows small businesses with innovative ideas to be able to showcase their technology to the Air Force through a competitive awards-based program.
“The AFWERX SBIR program is a rapid innovation process, so it is really streamlined and brought the deliverables to the customer in a more timely manner,” Streets said.
Streets explained that after the site characterization, ASI will deliver products such as tech demos and prototype software to his team for familiarization. The PIRA automation program is in the second phase, the first of which required ASI to pitch their technology to the Air Force; the third phase would be the trial phase.
“In the coming months we’ll get a software drop that will allow our personnel to get familiar with the platform and do simulations,” he said. “That is going to be beneficial for us to learn to learn the technology, as we approach the trial date which is mid-November.”
The Vehicle Automation Kit would include actuator boxes that control the steering wheel and even operate the gear selector. The ASI team measured roads, vehicle characteristics, measured cab spaces and vehicle roofs for installation of the VAK and necessary radio and GPS systems. The vehicles they surveyed included a pickup truck, as well as Humvee and an M977 Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck. Streets said that automating targets would free up manpower and allow his team to accomplish their missions faster and safer.
“Our vision is to take the man out of the loop; get the operators out of the driver’s seat and automate that technology to use the manpower in other ways,” Streets said. “When we do a ten vehicle target array, it takes all out of our people and then some, we normally have to borrow folks to complete the mission. This will allow our folks to operate a ten target array with two personnel. The other personnel can be utilized to close roads, set reflectors and light barrels and do numerous other mission support activities.”
Manually driving mobile targets at the PIRA can be a time-consuming mission, and the strain on drivers is compounded when they are tasked with driving convoy missions with multiple vehicles at slow speeds and uneven terrain conditions. PIRA crews are looking forward to the technology which they believe will allow the team to accomplish even more, Streets said.
“For me personally, having worked out here in the 1990s and operating some of these same targets, it is very exciting for me,” Streets said. “Automating these targets was something that was looked at 12 years ago and we didn’t go that direction. The maturity of automated targets today; the technology is more advanced, that is really exciting to get to this day, and really excited to get to the actual trial and see it work on our base.”