WASHINGTON — With competition to field the U.S. Army’s light robotic combat vehicle starting in the third quarter of 2023, the project’s programmers are working on new testing and evaluation criteria to certify the technology.

Although autonomous vehicles have slowly made their way into the commercial realm, the Pentagon’s efforts to build robotic vehicles have been almost two decades in the making. For its part, the Army considers combat vehicles a top modernization priority.

Winners from the competition will deliver the first prototype units by 2028, according to Maj. Cory Wallace, the robotic requirements lead with the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team. In the meantime, programmers are taking a new look at how they will test the technology before it hits the battlefield, and that could include taking lessons from the civilian world.

“With the RCVs, we are looking at such new systems and new approaches,” Wallace said in an interview with C4ISRNET. “A lot of the testing procedures that are currently employed are not the most efficient.”

Military combat vehicles have historically needed to pass certain benchmarks, such as a specific number of test miles driven. The robotic vehicles, which are intended to be autonomous, might not need to pass the same thresholds, he said.

Instead, Wallace said, the service could look to certify the vehicles in a virtual environment as opposed to actually driving the vehicles the same number of miles required for regular combat vehicles. Testing and evaluation metrics might also look to companies already in the autonomous vehicle space to see what could be replicated in the military sphere.

Programmers have “been very open to try new means of testing,” Wallace said. “We’re trying to draft [off] what we’ve done in the civilian world, as well, to see if we can gain efficiencies by implementing their testing standards.”

Over the next five years, the Army plans to spend nearly $750 million on developing light robotic vehicles, according to fiscal 2023 budget justification documents. While the bulk of the funding will go toward developing the robotic platform and its control system, the Army will run a second acquisition program in parallel that focuses on software and building out autonomous capabilities that will eventually be added to the platform.

When testing the software capabilities, Wallace emphasized the need to develop a method that looks at changes between iterations rather than checking each line of code. If programmers get bogged down in evaluating the software’s code, he said, the program could lose momentum during the certification process.

By separating out the software acquisition pathway, the service aims to develop software-centric capabilities that can support any future robotic combat vehicle configuration, Maj. Gen. Glenn Dean, the Army’s program executive officer for ground combat systems, told C4ISRNET.

“A core element of the program that we’re executing is about establishing the base-vehicle architecture and the base-software architecture so that you can come in and subsequently add capabilities as modules of software that don’t require you to go back and test every other module of software to verify that it still functions appropriately,” he said.

The Army has sought to develop three types of robotic vehicles — light, medium and heavy — to use as scouts or escorts for crewed fighting vehicles, beginning with the light program.

Surrogate prototypes of both the light and medium versions underwent testing this summer at Fort Hood, Texas. However, in the spring, the service said it would first focus on smaller platforms and defer work on medium vehicles.

According to Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, the director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team, the Fort Hood testing and future experiments help examine the range of capabilities that fit with a light vehicle versus a medium platform.

Once those experiments lead to refined requirements, the team will start on a specific program focused on medium-sized vehicles, Dean said.

Catherine Buchaniec is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where she covers artificial intelligence, cyber warfare and uncrewed technologies.

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