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 mere 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. …