Army Sees Advancements With Leading Vehicle Technology
Army Sees Advancements With Leading Vehicle Technology
A convoy of semi-autonomous vehicles with palletized loading
Ministry of Defense Photo
The military is trying to leverage robotics and other capabilities to enable its “leader-follower” concept for vehicle convoys. After years of work, the army has made progress in the development of technology.
At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, roadside bombs planted by insurgents maimed and killed servicemen and civilians, targeting convoys of vehicles transporting troops and supplies to bases.
To deal with the threat more immediately, the military invested billions of dollars in armored and mine-resistant vehicles that could better withstand blasts. At the same time, he launched an ongoing, long-term effort to create autonomous “leader tracking” technology that could reduce the number of soldiers at risk in future battles and free up troops for other tasks.
The service is progressing. It has tested its leader-follower autonomy software at events such as Project Convergence 2021, where the military tested technology that can support its bid for the Pentagon’s all-domain joint command and control concept. Additional work is underway at bases such as Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The Army has primarily used what it calls Palletized Loading Systems, or PLS, Unmanned Tracker Vehicles, in its experiments, said Major Benjamin Hormann, chief rapid-tracker project officer at the Systems Center. of ground vehicles from the Combat Capabilities Development Command. The soldiers of the 41ST Transportation Company currently own 60 M1075 PLS trucks equipped with an autonomy system.
“The unit received training on new equipment over two years ago and has a ‘train the trainer’ strategy in place to maintain proficiency throughout the year,” he said. he stated in an email. “This unit provides real-time information to software developers and engineers, allowing them to get the features they want/need very quickly.”
The vehicles currently use a software version known as LF 1.3.
The Ground Vehicle Systems Center uses what it calls a “dirt engineering concept” where soldier feedback is run through an agile software sprint to develop and update the system every 90 days, Hormann said. During this time, the unit also provides information so that requirements and doctrine can be updated.
The Army showed off its leader-follower technology during the service’s Project Convergence exercise at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona last fall, he said. The annual experiment has been dubbed a “learning campaign” by officials and is intended to contribute to the Pentagon’s JADC2 effort, which aims to better link sensors and platforms into an operational network.
At Project Convergence, officials used two versions of its autonomy software and completed more than 3,000 miles of robotic testing, Hormann said. The Autonomy System has been tested on the Palletized Load Trucks, Cold Weather Off-Road Vehicle, and Logistics Vehicle System Replacement Platform.
The Army plans to test leader-follower technology at Project Convergence 2022 with an autonomous missile launcher demonstrator as part of an effort with Army Futures Command’s long-range cross-functional marksmanship team and the DEVCOM’s aviation and missile center, Hormann said.
Meanwhile, the service recently completed the latest surge in capacity improvements for its fast leader-follower program, he said.
For example, the service merged existing autonomy software with a core of government-owned robotics technology, he said. RTK is the Army’s modular software package library that can be used for common ground autonomy software. The software is based on the so-called robotic-military open system architecture.
The most recent increment also developed a feature known as “mount and dismount” where autonomous PLS trucks could form a column formation based on a user’s commands, as well as “park” platforms online, whether front-back or side-to-side, he added.
Another new capability is a “reverse traverse” feature with trailers, which allows the PLS vehicle to reverse and uses what Hormann called a “pin and pin feature.”
This ability allows “the fighter to back up a self-contained convoy with a trailer without having to get out and put the trailer traverse table locking pin in,” he explained.
The next step in the leader-follower program is the Army Test and Evaluation Command’s security test for the maturation of its version 2.0 software system.
Over the next two years, the 41st Transportation Company is expected to participate in three Collective Training Center exercises with leader-follower technology, Hormann added.
The GVSC and the Product Management Office for Autonomous Robotic Systems also plan to further evolve the technology’s software and hardware, he noted. This includes increased reliability and additional system hardening.
The Army currently uses a “buy, try, decide” procurement model and a mid-level acquisition rapid fielding approach when it comes to acquiring the systems, he said.
“There will be a later decision point to ramp up capacity and mass-produce the eventually manned leader-follower system for the PLS registration program,” Hormann noted.
The military has been working on autonomous military vehicles since 1999, he said. Some of the platforms the technology has been tested on include Humvees, HX60 Tactical Trucks, RG-31 Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected Vehicles, Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement Systems, M915 Tractor Trucks, medium tactical vehicles, LMTV light utility trucks and heavy equipment transporters. .
More recently, autonomous hardware and software systems developed by the Ground Vehicle Systems Center include the Palletized Cargo System, Cold Weather All-Terrain Vehicle, High Mobility Artillery Rocket System as well as the Platform of the Marine Corps Logistics Vehicle System and the Red Fires variant of the Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Hormann said.
One company that has worked with the military on leader-follower technology is Robotic Research, based in Clarksburg, Maryland.
In 2018, the Army awarded the company a three-year, $49.7 million contract to provide autonomy kits for large convoy supply vehicles under the leader-follower program. Robotic Research has seen its participation expanded with various National Advanced Mobility Consortium contract vehicles, said Jim Frelk, the company’s senior vice president. He currently offers service technical support on the timely leader-follower effort.
The organization has worked alongside vehicle manufacturers such as Oshkosh Defense to equip platforms with its leader-follower autonomy software in places such as Fort Polk, Fort Sill and Camp Grayling, Michigan, for testing. The company provides the autonomy software and Oshkosh provides the electric drive kit for the vehicles, he said.
The company has been working on features like “safe harbor” features, he noted. Safe Harbor functions tell platforms what to do in the event of an attack or system sensor failure.
The leader-follower technology has matured significantly over the years and is at a point where it can now be deployed, Frelk said. “Basic software…which has been demonstrated, in our opinion, doesn’t have much more to do before we start rolling it out.”
However, there are still challenges to overcome and room for improvement. These include sensor hardening and better integration between vehicles and on-board equipment, he said.
There are usually seven or eight vehicles in an autonomous convoy, Frelk said. They are all equipped with an autonomy kit and any of the vehicles can take over as the “leader” platform.
“There is no requirement today that there be a specific designated vehicle” as the primary platform, he noted.
Robotic Research also works with the military, the German Federal Ministry of Defense and Rheinmetall to support leader-follower technology with partner nations.
The U.S. military wants to “expand this capability and make it interoperable with other vehicles…for convoy operations with allied forces,” he said.
As the Pentagon shifted its focus from counterinsurgency operations to great-power competition with adversaries Russia and China, Frelk said there was still a need for leader-follower technology.
“There will always be vulnerabilities to convoy operations and [a desire to] to reduce the number of deaths and improve … the functionality of moving things fast,” he said. “The leader-follower is going to be useful.”
Additionally, the autonomy packages that are being tested with the leader-follower program aren’t just relevant for convoy operations, Frelk said. The program impacts other vehicles, including combat systems.
The same “autonomy kit that has been proven on leader-follower is being rolled out to other systems that are armed systems,” he said.
“Think of it as a stepping stone to combat vehicles and other vehicles capable of operating autonomously in environments without GPS.”
The core software stack is portable and can be used with a variety of systems, but different platforms may require separate sensors, he noted.
For example, the range required for off-road operations will be different from that for on-road operations.
“It’s a tweak to the system, not a whole new system,” he explained.
In addition to working with the military, Robotic Research also has contracts with other components of the Department of Defense such as the Defense Logistics Agency, Frelk said. Last year, DLA awarded the company a contract to develop an unmanned autonomous guided vehicle to tow loaded carts in and out of warehouses.
DLA has 20 storage sites and more than 570 warehouses, according to a press release from Robotic Research. Development of the AGV could lead to follow-on contracts for up to 100 vehicles.
The company is also working with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency on WMD efforts, Frelk said.
Meanwhile, in late 2021, Robotic Research completed a $228 million Series A funding round to expand its commercial offerings. It will pay off for the military, Frelk said.
“The government benefits from the number of miles driven with similar range capability and the lessons learned there,” he said.
Topics: Army News, Robotics & Autonomous Systems, Robotics