Army, Marine Corps In Pursuit of Robotic Convoy Systems

By Grace V. Jean
Because roadside bombs have claimed the lives of thousands of troops, both the Army and Marine Corps are pursuing efforts to reduce the number of injuries and deaths by developing robotic trucks that can drive long distances at highway speeds.

As part of its modernization plan, the Army is funding several ground robotics programs ranging from small, remotely controlled explosive ordnance disposal units to large autonomous tactical wheeled vehicles.

One of the more mature initiatives is a kit that promises to turn any of the Defense Department’s trucks into an autonomous system.

Funded by the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, the convoy active safety technology program aims to improve convoy operations. The kit is small enough to be installed in the cab of a transport vehicle while allowing ample room for soldiers to ride along. It connects to the steering wheel and pulls in feeds from the various sensors that are installed on the vehicle. The sensors include millimeter wave radar, LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and electro-optical and infrared cameras.

The system is configured to operate either in an optionally piloted mode where the soldier sits behind the wheel but the vehicle drives itself, or in a fully autonomous mode without any humans in the cab.

If an insurgent tries to disrupt the convoy by cutting into the line of vehicles, troops can simply hit a red button to disengage the autonomy in order to take control of the situation.

In an Army Research Laboratory experiment, soldiers operated the vehicles in trials that involved finding hidden improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Soldiers ran the scenarios twice, once with troops driving, the second with CAST in operation.

“They saw 25 percent more IEDs when they were using CAST,” and at greater distances, said James Lowrie, director of autonomous systems at Lockheed Martin Corp. The soldiers also experienced no rear-end collisions, he told National Defense.  

The price point for a full-production system is reportedly $20,000 per unit.

Lockheed Martin engineers on the program recently developed a “push” robotic vehicle that can lead a convoy.

“That’s a capability that’s rarely seen in autonomous technology,” said Adrian Michalicek, program development manager for Lockheed Martin autonomous systems. “It’s another layer of sophistication,” he said. The vehicle is equipped with onboard sensors including a disturbed soil detection system to search for IEDs.

All CAST kits have an obstacle detection and avoidance system. In a video demonstration, a convoy of four trucks using CAST drove into a scenario where a small mannequin resembling a child perched on the side of the road. The first truck passed by safely but suddenly the mannequin moved out into the street. The second vehicle detected the obstacle, slowed down and determined a safe route around to avoid hitting it.

CAST has been tested in a number of experiments and demonstrations covering more than 12,000 miles of autonomous operation so far, officials said. They are coordinating with the Army to field the system into theater for evaluation. While there is no firm commitment, “Everyone wants to see that happen in 2011,” said Lowrie.

The Army is attempting to make fielding robotic vehicles a reality by developing the network they will communicate on. The service’s program executive office for integration, which is working to bring all the robotic systems together, will continue those efforts in the coming year, Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the office, told National Defense at the Association of the United States Army annual convention in Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, Army Training and Doctrine Command leaders are examining requirements for a multi-mission unmanned ground vehicle. The service is planning two variants: counter-IED and an armed light reconnaissance vehicle.

There is already a program of record for the armed robotic version, once part of the now-defunct Army future combat systems. Lockheed Martin Corp. is on contract to build six prototype vehicles beginning next year. The six-wheeled vehicle is designed to provide dismounted soldiers with a mobile scouting capability that can fire upon enemies when called upon. The intent is to eventually arm it with a machine gun and Javelin missiles.

“This system cannot and will not do independent autonomous engagements,” said Don Nimblett, senior manager for business development at the company’s missiles and fire control division. “We’re not inventing the ‘Rise of the Machines,’” he said, referring to the “Terminator” science fiction movie series in which robots attempt to eradicate mankind.

The company has been asked to focus on producing the vehicle first, said Nimblett. The chassis has articulated shoulder points on every wheel that can move in a 200-degree arc. The wheels have an in-hub motor and operate independently, allowing the vehicle to climb over obstacles. Test vehicles have successfully traversed 1-meter steps and crossed a 1.8-meter gap, he said.
The company will deliver the prototype vehicles to the Army for testing, said Nimblett. Initial low rate production is expected in late 2013.

On the Marine Corps side, a joint effort between the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and the Defense Department’s Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise seeks to experiment with technologies that will automate the service’s logistics convoys.

A two-year contract was awarded to Oshkosh Corp. to help explore the concept of manned and unmanned teaming of the Marine Corps’ workhorse truck, the medium tactical vehicle replacement truck, or MTVR.

“This initiative is to get marines out of some of the vehicles and off the roads away from [improvised explosive devices],” said Brent Azzarelli, chief robotics engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren, which is providing engineering and program management support to the warfighting lab.

Oshkosh is adapting its autonomous truck technology, called TerraMax, for the task. It will participate in a number of experiments and demonstrations, called limited technical assessments, to evaluate the progress. A culminating demonstration in 2012 at Camp LeJeune, N.C., is in the works.

The lab plans to experiment with leader-follower capability and flesh out the right mix of manned and unmanned vehicles for convoy operations. Among the tactics under development, engineers will help determine how to enable a “self-healing” convoy in cases where an autonomous leading truck is attacked and made immobile, said Azzarelli.

Initially developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s 2005 Grand Challenge — a robotics race through the California desert — the TerraMax autonomous technology was a finalist in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.

“We’ve been building on those and improving, and now adapting it to more relevant applications,” said John Beck, Oshkosh’s chief engineer for unmanned systems. Engineers have integrated the technology onto a number of Defense Department trucks, including the load handling system variant of the Army’s family of medium tactical vehicles.

In the DARPA challenges, the TerraMax team was not allowed to interact with the vehicle as it proceeded through the closed track and navigated its way past obstacles. But for the warfighting lab effort, engineers will have to establish ways for marines to communicate with the vehicle and to apply it to tactical operations.

“They want the vehicle to operate as human-like as possible,” said Beck. “It needs to understand the terrain it’s operating in. It needs to understand how to deal with that terrain in an intelligent fashion.”

To give the vehicle more advanced behaviors, Oshkosh has been working with the national robotics engineering center at Carnegie Mellon University and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging LLC to improve its autonomy and sensing capability. For example, if the truck has to navigate a side slope, the LIDAR may perceive the road as a wall or barricade. Using more scans from the LIDAR helps the vehicle understand that the “barrier” is really a steep grade and it can then properly traverse the road, Beck explained.

The electro-optical sensors that helped the vehicle to detect road boundaries, such as painted lines and curbs, are being enhanced by the LIDAR to allow for improved positioning on roads running across rough desert terrain.

Beck said that they also have added traditional radar into the mix. “We’re using it now to help us deal with dust,” he explained.

Part of the challenge will be establishing a communication architecture between the manned and unmanned vehicles.

“There’s information that the manned vehicles may need to get if the lead vehicle is autonomous,” said Azzarelli. Allowing marines in the convoy to have access to that truck’s sensors will be critical to the concept’s success, officials said.

Oshkosh is working with a number of radio companies to meet the lab’s requirements of specific line of sight and non-line of sight distances.

Engineers also are engaged in testing where in the convoy the autonomous vehicles ought to be located: up in the front leading, bringing up the rear, or scattered throughout the line of vehicles. Another goal is to investigate the number of robotic trucks that a single operator can monitor at one time.

The focus in the first year will be on experimenting with a single autonomous vehicle and one operator control unit, said Beck. During the second year, company officials anticipate integrating the autonomy kit into a second or third MTVR and placing them into a manned convoy operation.

“We’re at the beginning of our two-year relationship, and we’re going to push them,” said Azzarelli. “It’s a short time frame to get technical and operational questions answered.”                                                     

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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