WASHINGTON — Polaris is applying autonomous controls to its latest off-road vehicle as part of an initiative with U.S. Special Operations Command and other customers to create an optionally manned vehicle for resupply, medical evacuations and more in a rugged environment.
Polaris converted the controls of its MRZR Alpha vehicle to be completely by-wire, meaning either a driver can manually control the vehicle or a user does so digitally with a remote controller or an autonomy package, Polaris’ vice president of government and defense, Nick Francis, told Defense News.
That autonomy package comes from Applied Research Associates, which previously partnered with Polaris for work on an autonomous MRZR X, unveiled in 2018.
During the first phase of this project, Polaris converted its MRZR Alpha to have by-wire steering, braking, shifting and more, while Applied Research Associates integrated its Otonos autonomy package and a host of cameras, lidar and other sensors. Lidar technology sends pulses of laser light to determine the presence, shape and distance of objects.
Matt Fordham, Applied Research Associates vice president, told Defense News his company had been deploying autonomy packages on heavy and off-road vehicles for 30 years.
Francis said both the vehicle and the autonomy package are more sophisticated than the earlier MRZR X effort.
“It was good learnings from the first, and now we’re taking all those learnings and over a decade of technology advancements and experience and putting it into the new MRZR Alpha” autonomous prototype, he said.
In the ongoing second phase, the companies will build prototypes and put them through testing under some basic scenarios — bringing supplies to a point of need in rocky or wooded off-road areas, for example. That work is expected to conclude in the spring, Francis said.
In the third phase, the prototypes will undergo more advanced testing in increasingly complex use cases created by customers to determine how they want to use the vehicle and, therefore, how the controls should be configured.
Francis said the vehicle today can be controlled completely through the autonomy package, using a teleoperator and across the spectrum in between.
He said he couldn’t speak to the government’s plans for how this prototyping work may lead to a program of record, but said generally the work will inform future requirements for light tactical vehicles that could be carried in the V-22, CH-47 and C-130 aircraft.
The effort is “more exploratory at this point, but certainly we’ve demonstrated the ability to put the controls onto a vehicle,” and if a customer were interested in buying the autonomous MRZR Alpha, “it’d be a very short time span for us to offer that capability” off the Minnesota production line.
Polaris declined to disclose the value of the ongoing prototyping work or the full list of customers contributing to the effort.
Francis said there are other manufacturers building unmanned ground vehicles, but what differentiates the autonomous MRZR is its ability to be optionally manned. In some scenarios — retrieving a wounded soldier, for example, where time is of the essence — a human driver could navigate complex terrain faster than the autonomy package. In that case, if an autonomous MRZR were on hand, a solider could pop the vehicle into manned mode and drive to the casualty.
“Having that optionally manned capability in a world of, ‘Hey, we need one vehicle to do more for the cost savings and the reduction in logistics burdens,’ ” is a key sales pitch for Polaris, he said.
The company is also pushing other variants and add-ons for its MRZR Alpha, including an Arctic capability and a high-power variant to power weapons, sensors and more.
While at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, which runs Oct. 9-11, Polaris is “really just trying to highlight how many different missions can be tackled with one common platform to the Army, Marine Corps and other allied services around the world,” Francis said.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.