December 08, 2016      

Autonomous military vehicles are the future of warfare, and the U.S. is leading their development. These vehicles will be able to perform different functions, including moving through dangerous terrain and attacking targets.

As the Pentagon’s investments in robotics rises, autonomous military vehicles could become a highly active field.

Army AGVs

One of the leading groups developing autonomous military vehicles is the Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) within the U.S. Army.

TARDEC has a “30-Year Strategy” (download PDF) and has been actively testing autonomous ground vehicle (AGV) technologies.

Business Takeaways:

  • As in other areas of robotics, the U.S. is the leader in autonomous military vehicles.
  • The Pentagon and DARPA are developing and testing drones for aerial, marine, and terrestrial use, as well as swarm operations.
  • In addition to allies such as the U.K., autonomous systems are spreading to users and militaries around the world.

Two years ago, TARDEC, in partnership with defense contractor Lockheed Martin, showcased an “Autonomous Mobility Applique System” (AMAS). The system gives autonomy features to convoy vehicles, including the ability to navigate dangerous environments. The goal of AMAS is to enable such vehicles to be deployed in hostile locations such as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2014, TARDEC held two trials. The first trial took place in May, and seven unmanned vehicles moved as part of a convoy at speeds of more than 40 miles per hour. The second trial took place in August with soldiers present.

TARDEC convoy

TARDEC tested autonomous military vehicles in a convoy.

During the Detroit Auto Show early this year, TARDEC demonstrated its autonomous military vehicles. Potential benefits include their ability to traverse environments with high numbers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and to help save soldiers’ lives.

In mid-2016, TARDEC tested autonomous vehicles on public roads for the first time in Michigan. Short-range radio technology to allow them to communicate with one another and sensors planted on the road.

TARDEC said that it plans to deploy a “lead truck” that can control the speed of vehicles behind it.

Ground vehicles aren’t the only area for autonomous applications. Aerial drones are also a core part of U.S. military planning.

DARPA and drones

Last year, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) put out a request for proposals for the Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) project. DARPA wants to reduce the need for human drone operators and instead allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to communicate with one another and to execute tasks without human input.

This includes identifying, tracking, and even “engaging” targets (with human permission).

In partnership with Composite Engineering, Dynetics, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and Lockheed Martin, DARPA is also developing “Gremlin” drones (named after creatures that British pilots viewed as good luck during World War II).

The agency envisions Gremlins being launched from planes and returning to those planes after completing their missions. The UAVs would be able to be used 20 times and would be capable of swarming together with other drones.

Swarms for the air and sea

The U.S. Navy is another pioneer in so-called swarm warfare. A 2012 paper obtained outlines a scenario whereby a military vessel at sea is attacked by five to 10 drones, which are controlled from a fishing boat in proximity.

This scenario highlights a vulnerability in the U.S. Navy’s current Aegis Combat System. While Aegis has many advanced weapons, drones can move past these systems because of their size and signature and reach the vessel.

In response, the Navy is developing Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology, or LOCUST. Instead of relying on missiles, machine guns, and sailors, LOCUST will enable small autonomous military vehicles to combat attackers in drone dogfights.

DARPA and the U.S. Navy aren’t the only ones leading drone swarm R&D.

The U.S. Air Force is working on mini-drones to overwhelm enemy defense systems. They are creating algorithms that enable small drones to fly without colliding, similar to how bees fly in a swarm.

ACTUV unmanned military vehicle for submarine hunting

The ACTUV system is designed to identify and evade vessels.

The Air Force also wants to use these drones as sensors and to deliver weapon payloads. This is all part of a new strategy it calls “autonomous horizons.”

Within the Pentagon is a secretive division called the Strategic Capabilities Office. It is working on 3D-printed micro-drones that can identify other micro-drones and create a swarm. The micro-drones themselves can be launched from fighter jets and use parachutes to descend.

Alongside autonomous military vehicles for the ground and air, the U.S. military is also looking at the technology for maritime operations.

DARPA has designed Sea Hunter to be “highly autonomous.” It can dodge other vessels and even identify enemy vessels. Sea Hunter is the product of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) initiative.

Allies for autonomous military vehicles

The U.S. has partnered with the U.K. on autonomous military vehicles. In July, the two nations announced that they will be cooperating to innovate “autonomous robotic delivery technologies.” This includes a combination of ground and air robotic vehicles to help move objects to soldiers who are in the “last mile.”

The American and British armed forces plan to begin testing these systems in October 2017. The partners have also called on academia and the private sector to help identify other related technologies, which they plan to test in 2019.

More on Military and Security Robotics:

Defense through autonomy

In the face of geopolitical instability, countries such as India, Israel, China, and Russia are turning to robotics to help save lives and respond to threats. Autonomous military vehicles will be an increasingly crucial component of land, sea, and air operations.

Militaries large and small are investing in automated vehicles and weapons platforms. As the U.S. makes strides in this field, will it keep this advanced technology to itself, or will it export it to the world as it has done with drones?