Unmanned Navigation: Officials watch a demonstration of the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System at Fort Hood, Texas. (Bruce J. Huffman/US Army)
WASHINGTON — The US Army is pushing the development of unmanned technologies to reduce the number of soldiers involved in its giant logistics tail and move them into fighting formations.
Having completed several initial tests of automated transport vehicles at Fort Hood, Texas, and elsewhere, the service expects to have a finished requirements document ready by fall in order to advance a “leader-follower” semi-automated technology, where several unmanned vehicles in a convoy follow a manned lead vehicle, Brig. Gen. John Sullivan, the Army’s chief of transportation, told an industry conference near Washington on May 6.
“It’s a technology we’re very excited about, and the potential it holds” for reducing manpower needs in formations, he said.
If successful, the technologies could reduce the number of soldiers needed for ground resupply missions, and help fulfill Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno’s directive to make the service lighter and more expeditionary.
Sullivan said every vehicle that can drive without soldiers can be shipped to conflict zones unarmored, since crew protection wouldn’t be an issue.
The leader-follower semi-autonomous system is “where we expect to see the most gains in the short term,” Sullivan said. The service is slowly introducing the system into its formations and working on a parallel effort on fully autonomous formations.
“As long as it’s done deliberately, realistically, and no one over-promises what this technology can deliver sooner than it is ready,” Sullivan said, there is every reason to expect the program can succeed.
On Jan. 14, the Army, working in partnership with Lockheed Martin, demonstrated an unmanned military convoy at Fort Hood.
During the event, two driverless palletized loading system vehicles and an M915 tractor-trailer truck, equipped with the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), worked with a manned Humvee. Navigating a variety of rural and urban courses, the convoy passed through traffic patterns and by oncoming pedestrians while maintaining its original programmed course.
“We’re not looking to replace soldiers with robots. It’s about augmenting and increasing capability,” Col. Chris Cross, head of science and technology at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said in a story posted on an Army website.
The vehicles were outfitted with both GPS receivers and light detecting and ranging systems to assist in navigation, and the AMAS can be installed on any Army ground vehicle, Lockheed representatives have said.
The event also was the last evaluation to complete the program’s capabilities advancement demonstration (CAD) phase.
“The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter,” David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said in a statement.
The Army also has conducted autonomous demonstrations of the Husky route-clearing vehicle.
Looking for UGV Ideas
In keeping with its effort to develop next-generation vehicles that are lighter, better-protected, and can operate autonomously or semi-autonomously, on April 9, the Army announced that it’s looking to tap the expertise of a consortium of industry, academic and nonprofit partners “to develop manned and unmanned ground vehicle technologies.”
Posted by the Army Contracting Command and Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), the document laid out a “blue sky” approach to uncovering new ideas and potential technologies.
This latest request for ideas can be seen as one of the first steps for the service since cancellation of the ground combat vehicle infantry carrier, which would have replaced the Bradley fighting vehicle early in the 2020s. Inclusion of unmanned ground vehicles is a peek into the service’s thinking of where it wants to go in the future.
While few Army leaders have spoken out explicitly about the future of unmanned ground vehicles, there has been movement in that direction.
The idea behind the consortium, said Jose Gonzales, the Army’s deputy director of land warfare and munitions, is to bring in “small businesses, non-traditional [vendors] and academia to solve” issues of weight, crew protection and power production.
The Army wants to encourage large prime contractors to partner with small business and research labs to help it work though these problems, he said.
This was hinted at during a January military aviation conference in Washington, when Gen. Robert Cone, then the head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said the service was looking at ways to shrink its brigade combat teams by incorporating more robotics in logistics convoys and other tasks. Since then, Cone has retired from the Army.
“I’ve got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force,” Cone said.
“When you see the success, frankly, that the [US] Navy has had in terms of lowering the numbers of people on ships, are there functions ... that we could automate — robots or manned/unmanned teaming — and lower the number of people that are involved, given the fact that people are our major cost?”
A February report from a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), concluded that ongoing federal budget pressures are “likely to drive the adoption” of unmanned ground vehicles by the Army and US Marine Corps.
“Reducing manning or eliminating it altogether in logistics supply convoys would save American lives in the future,” the CSIS report said. “Experimentation in Afghanistan with the commercially available, remotely piloted K-Max helicopter proved the advantages of one approach to using unmanned technology in this role in tough terrain. Following it with ground vehicles is logical.”