Magazine article National Defense

Army Wants Trucks to Drive without Troops

Magazine article National Defense

Army Wants Trucks to Drive without Troops

Article excerpt

The Army wants to retrofit a portion of its tactical wheeled vehicle fleet with robotic brains so that unmanned trucks, not troops, are put in harm's way during resupply and route clearance missions.

Removing drivers from truck cabs also frees up soldiers to perform more complex tasks at a time when declining budgets are putting a premium on manpower

The Marine Corps has been testing autonomous resupply and casualty evacuation by ground and by air at its Warfighting Laboratory and in field tests at various installations. Unmanned helicopters that fly pre-planned routes to forward operating bases in Afghanistan have already proven their worth in combat.

William Moore, deputy to the commanding general of the Army Sustainment Center of Excellence, recently described "autonomous ground mobility" as the service's number-one desired next-generation truck technology.

"Taking drivers out of trucks and repurposing them even within the cab, there is a lot of potential there," he said at the National Defense Industrial Association's annual Tactical Wheeled Vehicles conference. "That is probably our number-one low-hanging fruit."

Officials at the center, based at Fort Lee, Virginia, are working with counterparts at Research, Development and Engineering Command to help technologies bridge the valley of death between the lab and the battlefield, Moore said.

"We have briefed Chief [of Staff Gen. Raymond] [degrees]diem[degrees] and leadership on the potential to get them through to the appropriate technology readiness level to where we can actually look at options to take it to ... procurement and fielding," he said. "We are trying to automate tasks so that we can repurpose [soldiers] to other functions."

Outfitting trucks that haul water and food with sensor packages, allowing them to navigate to and from forward battlefield positions, has the most immediate potential to remove troops from convoys. The basic technological capability has been proven, though some functions like sense-and-avoid systems are not yet up to snuff, Moore said.

A joint technology concept demonstration of autonomous truck convoys involving both the Army and Marine Corps is ongoing. The system will undergo a military utility assessment this summer, Moore said.

Autonomous robots that remove humans from immediate control of vehicles and aircraft are not yet sophisticated enough for complex tasks like navigating cluttered terrain or choosing friend from foe. The prospect of arming robots has been met with stiff resistance if a human is not included in the decision-making loop. Moore said those issues would not likely interfere with route clearance, combat resupply and similar transportation missions. "Are these technologies realizable in the near future?" Moore asked. "There are some folks who say we'll never be able to get through the legal and policy constraints of autonomous ground resupply, but yet I see cars parking themselves in the parking lot. It seems like we're getting there a lot faster than some of us can even realize."

Oshkosh Defense already has outfitted the Marine Corps medium tactical vehicle with the TerraMax autonomy retrofit kit that allows a convoy of several trucks to be driven by a single person. The cargo unmanned ground vehicle project began in 2010 to find out how Marines might use driverless trucks to reduce vulnerable resupply convoys and streamline battlefield logistics. …

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