RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
SPECIAL REPORT: ARL Director Focused on Top 10 R&D Priorities
Photo-illustration: Army, iStock
This is part 1 of a 2-part special report on Army R&D
The Army Research Laboratory is zeroed in on key initiatives aimed at giving soldiers an edge on future battlefields against advanced adversaries.
There are only 10 efforts that have been deemed essential research programs, ARL Director Philip Perconti noted in an interview with National Defense.
“We want to make sure that the laboratory is focused on the priority problems and answering questions … that will get the Army to multi-domain operations,” he said.
ARL’s long-range distributed and collaborate engagements program is in line with the service’s top modernization priority: long-range precision fires.
The aim is “to be able to take multiple munitions and have them either combine their effects or deliver an effect in some coordinated way from a very long range, which requires a sophisticated amount of technology,” Perconti said.
The lab is trying to figure out how the Army can develop networked weapons full of cutting edge sensors and other components that can survive hundreds of Gs and be delivered precisely. The systems would also need to be affordable, he noted.
“Can you make and manufacture and understand the science behind these low-cost munitions that … can either loiter or collaborate [and] communicate?” he said. The Army would like to be able to deploy this capability against a peer adversary in a contested environment where GPS might not be available or U.S. forces were confronted with electronic jamming, he added.
Objectives include improved range, speed, maneuverability and survivability.
“It’s a really rich problem space but it’s a really important area for the Army,” he said.
The science of additive manufacturing for next-generation munitions program also aims to aid in building future weapons.
“There’s not a real good understanding of how those [metal, plastic or polymer] microstructures change or are impacted by trying to build up something using additive manufacturing techniques,” Perconti said. “In other words, if I take a bulk piece of material … that has been built up by a 3D [printing] technique, do they have the same physical properties, the same mechanical properties, the same structural properties, if you will, when I put it into a part or a system?”
There needs to be a detailed understanding of the material science and physics associated with constructing parts this way, because soldiers on the battlefield must be able to count on the systems they are using, Perconti noted.
The lab’s program is designed to achieve that understanding and bring that science to machine vendors and manufacturers so that they can create fully qualified, additively manufactured parts that can be sent wherever the Army needs them or even manufactured on site, he said.
The Army’s No. 2 modernization priority is next-generation combat vehicles. ARL’s artificial intelligence for maneuver and mobility program will contribute to that initiative.
“The near term autonomous platforms will have some level of teleoperation and perhaps some level of autonomy on their own. But of course, when you start thinking about the future and having fully autonomous platforms on the battlefield, there are a number of open questions that remain to be solved,” Perconti said. “We’re knee deep in this because you won’t find the answers necessarily in the private sector.”
Unlike commercial self-driving cars, robotic combat vehicles must be able to operate in urban environments where digital maps aren’t reliable, and be able to navigate and maneuver off-road in austere environments, Perconti noted.
“All of those problems just exacerbate the need to do research for autonomous platforms that … can be immediately sort of retrained either with minimal interaction with soldiers, or can learn on their own in highly complex environments to be efficient and effective,” he said. “That’s where the ARL research is really heading.”
The convergence of lethality, protection and autonomy to dominate ground combat program explores how the Army can leverage advances in sensing, machine learning and autonomy to make platforms more survivable and potent.
The service is already pursuing active protection systems in the near term that can intercept rockets and missiles before they strike U.S. military vehicles. But ARL is looking at what comes later.
“For the longer term, the question is how do you really amp up systems of that sort using either on-platform or off-platform protection mechanisms,” Perconti said.
For example, in the future the Army might be able to use sacrificial autonomous platforms as an advanced protection technology, he said.
“The other element that we’re exploring … is how do you take advantage of autonomy to really amp up the lethality of platforms when you don’t necessarily have a soldier in the platform or you have soldiers that are removed from where the munition actually is being fired from,” he added.
AI and machine learning aren’t just applicable to unmanned platforms. When people hear the word autonomy, they often think of robots, Perconti noted. But an autonomous agent can be any type of AI or machine learning capability, to include software that aids in decision-making.
The human-autonomy teaming program seeks to exploit these emerging opportunities.
“All of this is really aimed at helping the Army understand how we can apply new technology for multi-domain operations” across land, air, sea, space or cyberspace, he said.
Facing off against peer competitors will require multi-domain command-and-control capabilities, he noted.
“We call it AI-enabled mission command,” Perconti said. “Much of that will be driven by advanced algorithms because speed to decision-making and accuracy of decision-making will … become a deciding factor in how you dominate a particular battle space.”
Autonomous agents could also help address electronic warfare challenges. Pentagon officials are particularly concerned about countering Russia and China’s EW capabilities.
The lab’s foundational research for electronic warfare in multi-domain operations program is exploring cognitive radio frequency techniques that could help soldiers recognize when they’re being jammed, and maximize the bandwidth of their radars or other systems, Perconti said. The aim is to enable troops to be agile across the electromagnetic spectrum and seamlessly operate their equipment without sacrificing capability.
“We’re taking advantage of advances in software defined radios and other technology that’s coming out of the private sector to really ensure that … there’s as much flexibility as possible in the RF space,” he said.
Addressing logistics and sustainment challenges is another focus area of the lab’s research initiatives.
The versatile tactical power and propulsion, or VICTOR, program is pursuing a multi-fuel capable engine that could be installed on a drone.
“Multi-fuel means basically any fuel that you can think of from JP8 … to diesel, to gasoline, to alcohol,” Perconti said.
Developing such an engine for an aircraft is more challenging than creating one for a ground vehicle, he noted.
“The game changes with regard to propulsion at altitude, particularly when you’re trying to use fuels that vary in their quality, vary in the amount of contamination, vary in their octane or cetane number,” he explained.
The program also seeks to aid troops whose equipment is more power-hungry than ever.
“We have to figure out a way to provide increases in energy density … [and] the amount of power that a soldier has access to in any given battery or any given energy storage platform in a way that doesn’t add cost, doesn’t increase weight, but it allows the significant increase in mission duration,” he said.
Capabilities the lab is eyeing include wireless power transfer to enable autonomous aircraft and ground vehicles to redistribute energy, and fast-charging batteries that can reach full charge in just six minutes, according to an ARL program description.
“There’s activity in the VICTOR program to get after these kinds of power techniques, power beaming from distance, enhanced energy storage techniques, thermal photovoltaic techniques that allow you to basically take a liquid fuel and convert that to energy and to then store it so that the soldiers could have extended missions,” Perconti said.
But troops don’t just need better power supplies — they also need to be better shielded from enemy fire. The physics of soldier protection to defeat evolving threats program aims to address that problem.
“It’s really looking at leaps in body armor and the next generation of protection specifically for soldiers against any emerging threat — and how do you do that in a way that reduces weight, is cost effective and can withstand perhaps more than one or two shots,” Perconti said.
While much of ARL’s work is aligned with the Army’s current modernization priorities, it is also looking far ahead to 2035 and beyond, he noted.
“I want to underscore the need for the research laboratory to work in areas that are not necessarily on the modernization priority list yet, but will be sometime in the future,” Perconti said. “Things like synthetic biology and quantum information science are particularly important.”
The quantum information sciences program could yield far-reaching technology breakthroughs in the long term, he said.
A phenomenon known as quantum entanglement is a key area of interest.
“You can basically take atoms [and] join them together in a way that if you understand what the properties of one atom are, you automatically know the properties of the other atoms,” he explained. “That’s fundamentally what we’re trying to exploit is the sensitivities, the relationships and the correlations between atoms at the atomic level.”
Quantum systems could aid with positioning, navigation and timing by providing soldiers with a very accurate measure of time down to the picosecond, he noted.
“Why do you need this? Well, every network, every communication network needs a clock. So how do we get that today? Typically we get it from GPS. People think that GPS is just for position on a map, but GPS also provides timing synchronization,” Perconti explained.
A quantum-based timing capability would be useful in a GPS-denied environment because if soldiers had small clocks on the battlefield that had stability down to picoseconds, they could operate for a long time without having to re-sync their systems, he noted.
“Remember the old movie where everybody synchronized their watches before they started a mission? This is the 21st century version of that,” he said.
“Imagine synchronizing your watches, your timing across every system on the battlefield, and then not having to do that for weeks or months so that everybody knows that their systems are going to work the way they expect them to. And we can also use … [the technology] for navigation and the like.”
Quantum information sciences could have a variety of other military applications as well, experts say. It will also be used for future “quantum” computers, imaging, sensors and networks that outperform classical systems that exist today, Fredrik Fatemi, ARL’s branch chief for quantum sciences, said in an email. “Its ability to have an impact on so many areas means that QIS sits at the intersection of material, computer, information, and engineering sciences, and will provide revolutionary capabilities for the warfighter.”
It will require years of work before the Army has these types of quantum capabilities, Perconti noted.
Meanwhile, the transformational synbio for military environments, or TRANSFORME, program is also pursuing a potentially revolutionary capability.
“Synthetic biology is an area that’s just exploding in the research community,” Perconti said, noting advances in gene editing to help combat disease.
“The next question, particularly for the military, is how do you functionalize biological materials … to do work for you that you might not expect might come from a biological material or synthetic biological material?” he said. “We’re really exploring the space in a big way and trying to understand the fundamental science behind synthetic biology and what it has to offer.”
The technology could eventually yield a variety of new capabilities. “Everything from novel forms of coatings and protection to different kinds of sensing technology … to other more interesting manipulations of synthetic biological materials, many of which have policy implications,” he said.
ARL is not currently doing any work aimed at creating “super soldiers,” Perconti noted. But conversations about pursuing that type of capability will eventually arise, he predicted.
“Just like the policy implications and the ethics of artificial intelligence, I think that same conversation in the future will come with regard to synthetic biological materials,” he said. “Synthetic biology is going to be a technology we all will have to take advantage of and potentially deal with from an adversarial perspective.”