By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) If a critical, high-value Army convoy were traveling through high-threat areas with soldiers, weapons, supplies and ammunition, it would rely upon extremely effective security when it comes to detecting enemy ambushes, finding IEDs or conducting forward reconnaissance to map the optimal way forward.
One way to improve security is to enable soldiers themselves to focus more fully on threat dynamics without having to expend energy and concentration driving. Increasingly, military vehicles can drive autonomously with minimal human supervision. Years ago, the Army successfully demonstrated an advanced, autonomy-enabled capability called “leader-follower” algorithms. Essentially, an unmanned or driverless truck can be programmed to precisely follow the maneuvers and route of the manned vehicle in front of it. Advanced algorithms enabling autonomy could guide, direct and simply drive accurately and precisely behind the vehicle in front. This technology pioneered more than 15 years ago, and has in recent years been breaking through in a paradigm-changing way.
“Where we are now, a manned leader vehicle can have up to 10 robotic, completely unmanned vehicles behind it, and those are operating with soldiers today on a prototype experimentation level. The goal, though, is to really remove those two manned vehicles and replace them with an autonomous capability that now allows those same convoys in ever increasing complexities of mission space to go from on-road to off-road to be able to execute those convoy missions without humans doing the driving functions. This can allow soldiers to do things like pull security for the convoy. That's something only a soldier can do,” Kevin Mills, Deputy Executive Director, Ground Vehicle Intelligent Systems, Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center, told Warrior in an interview.
Tactically speaking, the ability for an autonomous, unmanned front vehicle leading a convoy to perform reconnaissance missions certainly provides a tremendous security advantage. Soldiers can encounter and see threats without having to themselves be placed at higher risk at the very “tip of the spear.”
However, despite this progress and the growing promise of autonomy, challenges remain when it comes to ruggedizing autonomous vehicles for military missions.
“We have a pretty significant divergence from where commercial industry is going for ground autonomy, a lot of the things that they rely on in terms of fixed infrastructure, well mapped roads, understanding rules of the road and road networks don't necessarily apply,” Mills said.
Ground autonomy has long been recognized as an extremely challenging technological undertaking, given that obstacles or other changes in the environment can require instant, dynamic decision-making. Responding in relation to other moving objects in a fluid, fast-changing environment, can be a challenging task for an autonomous ground vehicle. Autonomy in the air, however, is less complex. Mills explained that these challenges specific to autonomous ground vehicle operation take on a new measure of complexity in combat environments.
Recommended for You
“When you start going off-road, in contested environments, and where your enemy gets a vote, you know, you might not have communication, you might not have GPS. I think the place where we're really gonna see autonomy on the ground is being able to expand that operational envelope. Right now we can do it pretty well, when you're in the less contested environments and the off-road terrain isn't too severe,” he added.
Army Ground vehicle autonomy is progressing so quickly and successfully that service engineers, scientists and weapons developers are seeing new horizons of possibility when it comes to generating new tactical advantages.
Advanced algorithms able to operate an entire convoy of 10 or more driverless vehicles are changing the tactical landscape and helping the Army improve and expand ground maneuver operations. If soldiers traveling in a convoy do not have to focus exclusively on driving but are instead transported by advanced Autonomous Navigation Systems built into vehicles, their capacity to perform a wider range of missions with greater effectiveness breaks through to unprecedented levels. An unmanned convoy, for instance, has fewer security requirements, meaning it can operate in hostile areas without the same risks.
“Right now, how we do it in the operational Army is you have to pull from combat units to support the logistic convoys, which really decreases your readiness and pulls folks away from combat missions. As they're forced to run convoy security. If we free up that driving function, now, the logistic units can provide their own security,” Kevin Mills, Deputy Executive Director, Ground Vehicle Intelligent Systems, Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center, told Warrior in an interview.
Where does autonomy go next, now that it has achieved landmark breakthroughs? One of the paradigm-changing elements of this is programming vehicles to recognize vehicle failures and breakdowns well in advance of an actual occurrence. Army weapons developers are now looking at ways to “map out” new avenues of possibility in terms of how advanced new algorithms can perform a wider range of functions beyond just navigation.
“We are working on understanding how, when a vehicle breaks down, and it's unmanned, what do you do? Those are the sorts of ConOps and TTPs that we're learning right now with soldiers, and that's going to enable us to get these systems in the field,” Mills said.
An unmanned or autonomous convoy could, for example, be programmed to respond to specific terrain features, identify and follow certain critical patterns or respond in an advantageous way to unanticipated warfare developments.
“I think we also get the opportunity now to start adding more tactical elements into how so the vehicle isn't just moving from point A to point B, but it's following the way a soldier would make sure you follow a tree line or make sure you don't crest yourself over a hill. Maneuver tactics, which are so essential for warfare, are something that you could program into the machine and we'll see those moving forward as the next level of just getting from point A to point B successfully,” Mills said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.