Jul 07 2014

The Army’s Self-Driving Vehicles of the Future

Autonomous systems could enable almost every military vehicle to be optionally manned.

It could be more than a decade before the Army’s tactical vehicles are completely driverless on the battlefield, but officials are already putting autonomous systems to the test.

In May, the Army joined forces with the Energy Department for a demonstration of driverless vehicles and is planning another test run in August with marines and soldiers, Paul Rogers, director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), told the Army News Service. TARDEC develops, integrates and sustains technology solutions for the Defense Department’s manned and unmanned ground vehicle systems and combat service support equipment.

The most recent demonstration took place at Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina and involved a convoy of seven tactical, unmanned vehicles driving at speeds of more than 40 miles per hour. These driverless vehicles could be used for humanitarian relief efforts or for resupplying troops during peacetime or wartime. Here's a short clip of the unmanned vehicles in action.

The Army’s Strategy For Deploying Autonomous Systems

The 30-Year Ground Vehicle Strategy for the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center "introduces scalable autonomy that will serve as a force multiplier and augment the capabilities of soldiers," Rogers said.

While the Army isn’t partnering with Google on its quest to develop self-driving cars, the military is using similar technology. Rogers said the Army is on a similar path with the Internet giant and has been eyeing autonomous vehicles since at least 2005.

In the future, this technology could enable almost every military vehicle to be optionally manned, reports the Army News Service. When it comes to removing an assistant driver in the vehicle, Rogers said he believes that’s possible today with the “autonomous capability that we'll be integrating into our vehicle systems. It's a mature capability that is ready to go into a program of record and could be fielded in the 2025 timeframe."

It would take a couple more years to mature the research and development needed to remove both drivers from a vehicle, Rogers noted. TARDEC is considering a wide range of use cases for autonomous vehicles, including unmanned tanks that could perform screening operations and unmanned helicopters to deliver unmanned ground vehicles into dangerous environments.

Near-Term Uses for Autonomous Vehicles

TARDEC is collaborating with industry and other government agencies to explore the use of self-driving vehicles on installations and bases. The Army is rolling out a series of automated vehicle pilots, known as Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operation (ARIBO).

Fort Bragg, N.C. is one of the pilot sites that will feature autonomous vehicle systems capable of transporting “wounded warriors from their transition barracks to their medical appointments.” Rogers called the potential cost savings enormous, noting that the energy-efficient vehicles at Fort Bragg would be charged from solar panels at designated parking pavilions.

Similar designs are planned for other Army installations and even private sites, such as theme parks.

"We're close to a second revolution," Rogers said. “The first was in the manufacturing sector where robots on assembly lines made the process more safe and efficient. The second robotics revolution will be in the transportation community.”

U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center