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US military plans autonomous cargo-hauling and combat vehicles, drone swarms

November 9, 2016  - By

Soldier-borne sensors, leader-follower cargo-hauling technology and tiny, handheld unmanned aircraft are in the forefront of new technologies planned for U.S. warfighters, according to Maj. Gen. Robert M. “Bo” Dyess. The deputy director of the U.S. Army Capability Integration Center told AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems Defense keynote audience that developing tools and systems demanded by soldiers is key. He cited a recent demonstration exercise, in which soldiers responded enthusiastically to small, backpackable UAS that would let them see over the next hill or fence.

The Army is also developing autonomous ground systems including an unmanned combat vehicle, fully autonomous convoy operations and swarming unmanned aircraft. Autonomous weapons are seen as key in combatting both relatively low-tech guerilla and militia groups as well as high-tech “near-peer” combatants from organized industrial powers. A contested electromagnetic spectrum is emerging as a critical battlefield in the contemporary and future warscape, Dyess said. Cyberspace, racked by fundamental threats of spoofing, jamming and hacking, becomes the new killing ground.

Shad Reese, Tactical Warfare Systems, Unmanned Vehicles coordinator for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, said DoD is elaborating a new unmanned systems roadmap, which should be published in the first quarter of 2017. The roadmap will cover the period 2016-2041.

Reese said that a key aspect of the new roadmap is swarming technology, although at present there is little work underway in industry to support this. “Everyone and their mom is talking about swarming, but if you step back and look at what’s going on in industry, there are no real players in industry working on swarming.” Some work is underway in academia, but “we would like to have commercially available swarming technology.”

The Army's squad mission support transport robot (SMET).

The Army’s squad mission support transport robot (SMET).

Army’s Ground Robots

The Army has put a robotic vehicle, the squad mission support transport robot (SMET), designed to carry heavy loads for troops, into an accelerated acquisition program. SMET is a 1,000-lb. tracked or wheeled platform carrying rucksacks, water or ammunition. A SMET version was recently tested in Afghanistan.

An Army spokesperson said the SMET has also been chosen as a pilot program a new way to do acquisitions that could shave time off development and fielding of new technologies, with industry involved from the start in specifications and requirements.

Swarms

Hordes of flying, thinking armed robots that autonomously coordinate amongst themselves, altering attack strategies in mid-mission and pushing through to strike targets kamikaze-style, are also seen as critical to future combat. The Air Force Research Laboratory calls the tactical weapons “distributed collaborative systems.”

Three drones work together to beam back information about an enemy’s location, and blocks their radar signals. (Image: DARPA)

Three drones work together to beam back information about an enemy’s location, and blocks their radar signals. (Image: DARPA)

The Air Force seeks to put “that next level of decision making and capability on the platform. Not only can it maintain itself, but it can work other parts of the team, whether those be airmen, or whether those be other machines to perform a mission task.”

Swarming micro-drones can be “really fast, really resistant. They can fly through heavy winds and be kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9, like they did during an operational exercise in Alaska last year, or they can be thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of the Iraqi desert.”

“Swarming is a way to gain the effect of greater intelligence without each individual unit needing to be intelligent,” added one strategist. Last year Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force Material Command, called swarming drones “very much a game-changing reality for our Air Force in the future.”

One consultant added that a human operator may not be able to compete with a fully autonomous system that identifies, analyzes and geolocates a target, especially in such a scenario where the swarm is moving rapidly. “The power and the sheer speed of execution would give them a huge advantage over their adversaries.”

Kristen Kearns, autonomy portfolio lead at AFRL, said that a major challenge with any autonomous system is verifying and validating that the decisions it is making are correct. Trust, or “verification and validation,” becomes paramount with artificial intelligence, Kearns added. “How do we assure safe and effective operations when we put decision making in the platforms?”

Steve Walker, deputy director of DARPA, said his agency has been working on developing battle management systems with a blend of manned and unmanned vehicles. “You have humans and unmanned systems and you need data fused together quickly and things are happening fast and you don’t want to overload the human with all that information. … You want to give him or her exactly what he needs to make a decision and have all these distributed effects work together,” he said.

One official noted the presence of many YouTube videos demonstrating robots flying, sailing or moving in formation. “It’s a good illustration of how so much of the advancement in this space is happening outside the defense world.”

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Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.

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