Driverless Vehicles in the Military

While the growing chorus of ‘take the man out of the machine’ has led to an explosion in aerial drone use over recent years and kept many pilots safely out of harm’s way, there have been far fewer moves to do the same for military drivers and land vehicles. The pendulum seems to now be swinging however, and Dr Gareth Evans investigates.

Image courtesy of Team Polaris

At the height of the Afghan war, the US military consumed around 45 million gallons (US) of fuel a month; the human cost of keeping up with the demand throughout that conflict was one lost to death or injury for every 24 fuel convoys brought in, and the problem persists. Throughout history, extended baggage trains have always been a key vulnerability for even the best and most advanced armies, presenting a golden opportunity for irregular and technologically inferior foes to inflict disproportionate damage, and even without enemy action, accidents still happen. 

According to Pentagon figures, in 2013 alone, some 60 percent of US combat causalities were related to convoy resupply.  In the post IED era, cutting the supply burden has become the new mantra of the times, leading to a major uptick in demand for systems capable of running on renewable energy, highly energy efficient buildings, and now, increasingly, driverless vehicles.   

There is nothing particularly new about the idea. Work has been underway around the world for a decade or more to develop autonomous and semi-autonomous ground vehicles, but on both sides of the Atlantic it seems the race is now on to meet the challenge of the so-called ‘Last Mile’ of logistical support, and get supplies to the frontline.

CAAR: Shaping logistic autonomy

While Star Wars-esque ‘hover-bike’ UAVs may have made most of the headlines from last November’s joint US-UK Coalition Assured Autonomous Resupply (CAAR) demonstration in Michigan, the week-long exercise featured cutting-edge autonomous ground-supply technologies too. The event marked the first time ever that a combined fleet of British and American driverless trucks have travelled in this kind of convoy format, and saw an all-terrain 4x4 successfully guided through a set of simulated mission tasks by an Xbox-style remote controller.

The ground-breaking line-haul convoy, consisting of a British Army MAN SV 6-tonne truck ‘lead’ vehicle with two US Light Medium Tactical Vehicles ‘follower’ trucks, travelled at up to 25mph, using integrated on-board robotics to make autonomous decisions regarding their speed and steering. Described by Pete Stockel, innovation autonomy challenge lead for the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), in a press release at the time as bringing to life “concepts which will provide solutions to de-risk the Last Mile of logistics support to the front line”, the hope is that it will ultimately herald a step-change in operational risk management. 

At this early stage of the project, human drivers monitored the trucks, which were controlled by a mix of real-time data and pre-set GPS waypoints, but in the longer term, the experience gained is expected to play a big part in shaping logistics vehicle autonomy in the future.

Remotely driven vehicles: The human in the loop

While the technology behind fully autonomous vehicles capable of advanced decision-making in genuinely uncontrolled, real-world environments remains in its early days, remotely driven vehicles (RDVs) at the other end of the robotics spectrum are increasingly proving their worth. 

Like UAVs before them, RDVs offer a bridge technology allowing all the benefits of cost-cutting and life-saving of driverless ‘last mile’ supply to be achieved, with the human still kept in the loop, but a safe distance away. 

The effectiveness of this approach was demonstrated in Michigan, using a remotely operated Polaris MRZR 4x4 all-terrain vehicle. Equipped with Light Detection and Range (LiDAR) technology, an advanced sensor system, cameras and GPS, the joint UK-US trials team were able to tele-drive it around the trial ground and successfully complete its simulated mission tasks using an adapted Xbox controller.

“With autonomous and tele-drive technologies shaping up to be an area of ever-growing military interest, the defence industry is gearing up to marry commercial innovation in vehicle autonomy with existing ground vehicle systems.”

Last November’s CAAR demonstration was the first event of a three-year collaborative project between the UK Dstl and organisations from the US Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command, with defence industry partners, commercial-off the-shelf suppliers and tech start-ups. However, it is not only governments that are getting in on the act. 

With autonomous and tele-drive technologies shaping up to be an area of ever-growing military interest, the defence industry is gearing up to marry commercial innovation in vehicle autonomy with existing ground vehicle systems.

The MRZR X is an remotely operated all-terrain vehicle being trialled by UK-US forces to enhance squad mobility. Image: Team Polaris

Rheinmetall Paravan

In October of last year, Rheinmetall Landsysteme and Paravan announced their newly formed partnership in a move that represents a pairing of two of the world’s leaders in their respective fields and which could ultimately have significant ramifications for the sector. Combining Rheinmetall’s proven expertise in tracked armoured vehicles and turret systems, and Paravan’s market leading drive-by-wire technologies, the aim is to design and develop semi and fully automatic platforms for military and emergency response applications.

It makes an ideal fit; Rheinmetall has a long association with investigating the potential of automated and autonomous vehicle systems, while Paravan has been steadily developing the required drive-by-wire control technologies for over 15 years. It may be a while before anything approaching the likes of Paravan’s ‘Olli’ autonomous mini-bus, with its interactive, data-cloud voice interface, but there are already some clear indications of how future generations of military platforms might perform.

Around the globe, civilian vehicles equipped with Paravan’s solutions have already racked up over 500 million kilometres, and it should be a relatively simple matter to adapt the same modular software, actuators, interface management and integrated sensor suites to the needs of Rheinmetall’s armoured systems. In addition, the technology does away with the need for a conventional steering column, freeing up designers to think differently about interior lay-outs, and experiment with entirely new concepts for the future, which also chimes perfectly with the current trends in military vehicle thinking.

Commercial cross-over

There are, however, some big differences between the likes of Google’s Waymo and Elon Musk’s Tesla self-driving car projects, and their military counterparts. Civilian robot vehicles are only tasked with navigating proper tarmac and conventional streets, where unexpected obstacles and unusual events occur relatively infrequently. 

Tactical vehicles, by contrast, often travel off-road and in hostile environments, affording the detection of obstacles, livestock and errant pedestrians a much higher priority, and that calls for sensors and software that can cope. In addition, the sheer weight of annual production, once civilian models become mainstream, will outstrip military demand by many orders of magnitude, leaving defence departments, on the face of it at least, likely to be paying much higher costs per unit.

“The prices of sensors and software in the general robotics industry have been driven downwards by the combination of economies of scale and the development of common standards.”

That said, as driverless vehicles increasingly become the norm on the roads, the acceptance of the technology in everyday life is certain to push its military use forward also. Already, the prices of sensors and software in the general robotics industry have been driven downwards by the combination of economies of scale and the development of common standards. 

It is difficult to imagine that the same forces will not apply more widely through the autonomous vehicle sector, and so ultimately bring big benefits to defence applications too. As Stockel said, “this could be a step-change in how operational risk could be managed, costs could be reduced and – ultimately – lives can be saved, as a result of harnessing this rapidly-evolving technology.”

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