UAS & Robotics

The move to autonomous ground vehicles requires a leap of tech

Considering the military’s extensive use of remotely controlled unmanned vehicles over the past 10 years, the jump to the next generation of fully autonomous vehicles might seem to be relatively short. But there are significant technical challenges to removing “semi” from in front of “autonomous” with respect to ground vehicles, which the Army is addressing through programs such as its Unmanned Ground Vehicle Interoperability Profile.

Army researchers talked about some of those challenges recently during a panel discussion at the National Defense Industrial Association Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference and Exhibition in Crystal City, Va.

Getting to full autonomy is a three-phase, evolutionary approach, said Mark Mazzara, robotics interoperability lead for the Army's Program Executive Office - Combat Support and Combat Service Support. The first involves technologies for assisting the driver and ensuring driver safety, followed by phases that introduce basic autonomous capabilities that then lay the groundwork for full autonomy.

"When you start looking at the mid-term, five to 10 years, we start talking about tapping into external systems," Mazzara said. "In the far term, we start talking about more ubiquitous interoperability between the robots and external systems."

Interoperability among robotics is something the Army is putting a lot of emphasis on these days, The technical pieces to the puzzle include upgrades to existing hardware, software, sensors and payloads; modular designs, an open architecture for in/out software and standardization to allow for faster development and incremental upgrades; miniaturization and light weights; and intelligent behavior that makes them easy for soldiers to work with.

Those parameters are in line with another recently announced Army initiative, the Robotics Enhancement Program, which aims to take a standardized, program-of-record approach to robotics after years of acquiring disparate systems on the fly for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The push toward autonomous ground vehicles is not new. The Army and Marine Corps, after a two-year collaboration, last year demonstrated the Autonomous Mobility Applique System, a multiplatform system that enabled an autonomous convoy. But that, researchers said, is at this point a commercial-level system, demonstrated in a controlled environment, that needs a lot of improvement before it can function in a battlefield situation.

The Army’s standardized approach could help speed up improvements, although full autonomy isn’t quite right around the corner. At the conference this month, one panelist, optimistically, said a rudimentary autonomous system—able to recognize patterns and markings in the open field—could still be 10 years away.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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